Is Your Ship Sinking?

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business ship sinking

Originally published on Forbes by Susan Taylor

When shareholders demanded Uber CEO Travis Kalanick step down from the company he created, the only surprise was that this visionary — who disrupted the transportation industry with his ride-hailing company — didn’t see his Uber ride coming to an end.

Uber’s crisis started amid complaints of sexual harassment and a lack of management response. Additional complaints and investigations followed; now, Uber’s reputation is badly damaged and its leadership in question. As the Uber ship is in danger of sinking, the company is frantically bailing water.

In hindsight, it’s clear to see how the constant scandals and allegations put Uber in crisis. But I imagine that at the beginning of it all, Kalanick, like many leaders, underestimated the seriousness of that crisis, assuming he and his company would recover.

This is one of the most difficult aspects of being a leader: knowing when an issue is a crisis versus a temporary hiccup.

Why Recognizing A Crisis Is Difficult

When a situation develops, you may not know about it until it becomes serious or widespread enough to capture your attention. During that time, the unchecked problem continues to infect your culture. As in the case of Uber, even after the issue surfaces, leaders may doubt the degree of seriousness, especially if they haven’t experienced it firsthand.

Once the problem is recognized, many leaders take the next misstep: They treat the symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself. Without recognizing the root cause, the problem will not get resolved and will continue to eat away at the company’s core. It happened to Uber, and it can happen to any company.

A few months ago, a CEO asked me to help with his leadership team. He was satisfied with the composition of the team, but wanted everyone to be more engaged. Could I facilitate some activities that would help everyone cooperate?

Not surprisingly, the issues were more complex than getting everyone to play nice. Employees revealed that specific senior leaders kept arguing, disrupting the organization. Even when the leaders agreed not to fight, their hostility was still obvious and counterproductive.

As I spoke with different segments of employees about the company culture, they kept mentioning trust — or lack of it. Employees didn’t trust the leaders, and the leaders didn’t trust each other. Part of this was due to the organization’s structure. The two leaders were in separate business units, competing for opportunities and results. Neither trusted that the other would put aside the competition to make decisions in the best interest of the organization.

Once we uncovered the real problem, lack of trust versus teamwork, we started making changes.

There’s no doubt that if the underlying trust issue hadn’t been identified and addressed, the company’s culture would continue to decay. Turnover at all levels would have increased, affecting productivity and profitability.

Is It the Perfect Time to Panic?

So how can leaders know whether they’re in temporarily rough waters, or heading for an iceberg? I ask my clients these initial questions:

1. What clues have surfaced, suggesting there is a problem, and how long has this been going on? Clues are symptoms. In the case of the company with little trust, the team had been in place for two years, and the symptoms persisted. Chronic symptoms indicate a deeper concern.

2. What have you done to address the problem so far, and what were the results? If you have tried multiple solutions, but nothing is effective, you’ve been addressing the problem at the surface level and it isn’t going away.

3. What patterns or themes keep arising? When you keep hearing the same issues crop up, it’s time to pay attention. They likely signal a deeper issue.

Righting A Sinking Ship

If, after asking the questions above, it becomes clear that the problem is more than a hiccup, here are some steps you can take to right the ship:

1. Gather More Information

When I work with an organization, one of my first steps is to interview a cross-section of employees to gain a system perspective. You can do that internally through interviews and focus groups. You can also look for feedback from employees through surveys or from a suggestion box. Are the same complaints coming up? Are problems you thought were solved resurfacing? Delve deep to make sure you’re uncovering the root cause, not just additional symptoms.

2. Pause to Ask Why

If you are constantly finding stumbling blocks between you and the progress you want your organization to make, it’s time to hit the pause button and ask yourself why this is happening. Leaders tend to look for quick, seemingly definitive fixes, such as a reorg. But such fixes are simply rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Instead, one of the first things you can do is stop, listen and pay attention to what you’re hearing. What are employees saying? What is the data telling you? What information do you need to be open to hearing? Use the wisdom of your past experiences, but don’t let that blind you to current conditions and future trends. Understand that this situation may be unlike past challenges and be ready to solve them differently.

3. Address the Problems Promptly And Transparently

You cannot possibly have all the answers. Seek help from those who do, and communicate with employees so they understand your efforts and are involved.

4. Hone Your Vision for Success

Certain organizational cultures have a better chance of surviving even in difficult times. If you create a culture that is open, values people and allows for diversity, you’ve got the underpinnings to recognize and address problems as they occur and a better chance of staying afloat, even when the water gets rough.

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