What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do

     Common parlance says one thing that characterizes a good CEO is that he or she always has the right answer. Yet research indicates this is not always so. “Leading from good to great,” author Jim Collins says, “means having the humility to grasp the fact that you do not yet understand enough to have the answers.” In other words, sometimes it is best to admit, “I don’t know.”
     I find that there are many saying this these days. From the real estate investor whose property values have dropped, to the contractor whose revenues have tanked, to the charitable organization whose donations are down, there is a heart-felt cry for understanding. I know the feeling – which is why I have given considerable thought about what to do when you just don’t have a clue.
     I have come to the following conclusions:
1) Don’t quit. The temptation to give up is strongest when the leader and his company are at its weakest. Yet who knows when the next break-through comes? Will your business be there to take advantage of it? Not if you throw in the towel! For sure, there may be situations where you are forced to do something you don’t want to do; regardless, if you stay the course you can win – you can not win if you quit.
2) Ask questions. Collins goes on to say that great leaders don’t stop with an “I don’t know” response; they “ask the questions that will lead to the best possible insights.” The truth is that there are many who have successfully weathered the storms a lot of us face; if asked, most will lend a hearing ear and helpful advice.
3) Consider what has worked in the past. Too often when faced with difficulty, we throw the baby out with the bathwater. But just because some things don’t work in this economy does not mean that everything must go. Certainly there are things that have contributed positively to your firm in the past; take a look at them and employ those that will help move your company forward.
4) Get back to the basics. The best businesses are those that stay put with the essentials. Building and maintaining relationships, providing great customer service, and financial integrity are those things which, if practiced consistently, will help move your company over the hump.
5) Start something new. This may not pertain to everyone, but sometimes what is needed is doing something different. Maybe it’s a unique product or service offering, an innovative approach to the market, a new business model or a fresh logo. Whatever the case, companies that survive downturns like this one are often those that are willing to get out of the box and adapt to shifting customer needs and wants.
6) Pray. Most folks approach prayer like this: When all else fails, pray. My suggestion is to pray before all else fails. It is unfortunate that it often takes trouble to get us praying. Certainly, challenges will come, but it is better to be prepared for them through prayer than to be knocked off your feet and utter “Help!” on the way down. I have learned that the single most effective means of navigating my way through difficulty is to pray ahead of time, in the meantime, and all the time.
     In conclusion, not knowing what to do – and being humble enough to admit it – can mark a great leader. Yet doing nothing can result in corporate death. A firm resolution to continue, a willingness to learn from others, and prayer are among those actions that will undoubtedly ensure a future for you and the enterprise you represent.


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March 2010

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