Leaders' Edge Advisor

Vol. 1, No. 1 - Leading in Lean Times

“The test of a person’s character is not measured during the good times, but how they handle themselves during the tough times.” Mickey Mantle

In these times, the words of Mickey Mantle ring true as leaders face difficult challenges resulting from increasing demands for services and diminishing resources. Whether his “tough times” or the lean times that have resulted from current economic and political shifts, leaders share the need to better understand options for moving forward in the change process.

During the good times, when financial resources are more available, serving more clients, putting new services in place, hiring new staff and implementing training programs are common fare. Fiscal downturns and related budgetary constraints can seriously interfere with the options available for building and sustaining your system/organization. Organizational stability is often determined by the leader’s ability to balance system change efforts with the need to maintain levels of operation.

So what does a leader do to sustain forward momentum?

It is incumbent upon the leader to be mindful of the shift in times and to take appropriate action to meet the needs of the organization while being sensitive to the economic and political climate that surrounds the work. The following six action steps have been particularly helpful tools to me in moving systems and organizations forward during lean times.

Maintain Visibility

People need to feel the vision is still intact, that there is stability in the operation of the organization and as the leader you remain committed to the vision. It is easy for staff, stakeholders and other interested parties to see tough times as a signal that the new direction taken is in trouble and may be abandoned. Therefore, visiting with staff and stakeholders both in small and large groups is very important to reinforce the message that in spite of tough times we will continue to move forward on our vision.

Make time to listen

Most successful leaders have an open ear to the thoughts and ideas of staff, key stakeholders and constituents. In fact, the last thing the leader wants to have happen is to promote the notion that they have all the answers. Making sure you schedule opportunities to hear the concerns and input of all people involved in the work of your agency is very important. Moving their ideas into your strategic planning process acknowledges and validates the input of your constituent groups that you are serious about hearing and acting upon their concerns.

Focus more on policy development

The focus on policy during lean times is an activity that costs little, which is why it is appealing during tough financial times, and has the potential to yield significant gains for your organization or system. This work becomes even more important when you are reforming your system because you may have existing policy gaps for the emerging new system or still have in place old policies that are now out of date. Moving forward on policy activities continues to engage key stakeholders in the work of the system/organization and serves as a protective factor from wholesale reorganization.

Justify budget with outcome data

Having a powerful data system that looks at outcomes for individual clients and the system can be a critical piece of your infrastructure during times of fiscal restraint. Being able to defend the current practices with data and tie those results back to the budget is ever so important. An evaluation system that reflects the work you are doing within the system is crucial. If one does not already exist, then launching such a program would be very useful in support of your budget justifications. As with policy development, it is another opportunity to engage all your stakeholders in helping design the data system.

Maximize revenue sources

When building your budget it is incumbent on the leader to make sure that every possible funding source is fully utilized. Collaborating across agencies on financial matters assures that you will be utilizing all possible funding streams. Laying out all state/local general funds and then looking at all the possible federal sources of revenue you can generate helps you begin to see where state/local dollars can be blended with federal funds. Clearly, Medicaid funds are an important source for leveraging local and state funds. In some cases, foundation funds can be used to match federal revenues, again the point is to stretch your financial capability by leveraging your financial resources.

Use the time for strategic planning

Strategic planning gathers information about the present, acknowledges what is working and what needs improvement and sets out a strategy to embrace what could be in the future. Planning during an economic downturn gives a signal that you are exploring new ways of doing business with a sense of optimism. Developing a strategic plan will allow you to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.

In the end, how you use the time during the lean periods will greatly determine your level of success as a leader. Hopefully, this brief piece on Leading in Lean Times has given you some insight on the tasks that can be accomplished during times of diminished resources.

Center for Community Leadership · P.O. Box 3069, Burlington, VT 05408-3069
ph: 802-863-9132 fax: 802-863-6586 · info@centerforcommunityleadership.com

Copyright 2005 Gary De Carolis. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.

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