The movie We are Marshall tells the story of the rebuilding of the Marshall University football program after a tragic plane crash in 1970 that killed nearly the entire team and the coaching staff.   The university president came close to suspending the program when he was persuaded by students and the community to rebuild. Matthew McConaughey plays the coach who is brought in to rebuild the program.

In one scene in the movie, McConaughey throws out the old playbook and designs a new offensive scheme. He realizes that the playbook was designed for a different time and a different team with different skills. His current team needs a different approach to have a shot at success, as they are clearly failing using the old playbook. As the coach, he makes a swift decision and rapidly implements a new playbook which immediately begins to build the confidence of the team. While it takes a few games for the team to get it, they ultimately win again.     While the story of Marshall is about the triumph of the human spirit in the face of tragedy, this scene also holds a great lesson for leaders in today’s uncertain environment. If the environment has changed and we are to succeed, it implies that old behavior will not work. If you are the leader, you must do more than cast a vision or rally the troops with a motivational speech. You must identify what new behavior is required and help your team learn that new behavior as fast as possible.    In the past few months, I have heard leaders at several different companies make bold pronouncements that “failure is not an option.” Upon hearing this message, do you feel your morale, confidence, and optimism improving? Do you feel better about your company’s prospects? I don’t either.    Here are four reasons why this approach is a big mistake:

  • First, it is intellectually dishonest, so no one believes it. Failure is, in fact, a possible outcome. The intent of this statement is to assure employees that the business will survive and that employees will be ok, but this may not be true.   Failure may not be a likely outcome and it is certainly not a desirable outcome, but it is within the realm of possibility. 
  • Second, it insults the intelligence of your employees. Why go to all of the effort and expense to recruit knowledge workers, who are supposedly very smart, but then treat them like idiots? Smart people understand that uncertainty exists. Pretending otherwise is insulting. 
  • Third, because this statement is often presented with great confidence and swagger, it shuts down meaningful dialogue. This approach suggests that by the sheer will of the leader, we will prevail. By saying “failure is not an option,” the leader is really trying to have the final word on the subject. The leader is frankly tired of dealing with the question and would prefer that people really just get back to work.
  • Fourth, this statement absolves employees of responsibility. By taking the weight of the option off the table, its puts it all on the shoulder of the leader. This approach is the exact opposite of empowerment and actually increases stress among employees. Stress occurs in high-demand, low-control situations, and increasing demands on people without giving them a reason to believe they have control doesn’t work.

So how can leaders use the lessons of We Are Marshall to deal with economic uncertainty and anxiety more effectively? 

  1. Acknowledge the pain, frustration and fear of the situation. While a business failure or job loss is not life or death like the Marshall tragedy, it is immensely painful.   Recognize that employees are wondering about their future but sitting idle in the face of fear is not a solution. 
  2. Acknowledge that we face significant uncertainty and it will likely continue for some time. There are multiple contingencies that depend on the overall economy, customers, competition, regulatory changes, and possible mergers or acquisitions. There may be several scenarios which we can envision, some good, some not so good. It is up to us to make decisions and to take action to capitalize on the best opportunities available. 
  3. Honestly assess your current situation and communicate the truth. Clarify your current cash position and how your long you can operate under your current structure. Do you have weeks, months, or years of cash?   Demonstrate that you have adequate resources to operate without being paralyzed by fear. This approach will help everyone in the organization grasp reality and move forward. 
  4. Like the coach at Marshall, make sure you have the right playbook and right team for this environment. Clarify your best market and customer opportunities to focus on during this period. Based on your current product and service capabilities, where do you focus? For example, if you have an installed base of customers, evaluate how to maintain or expand your business with them. If you are pursuing new customers, make sure that your value proposition and lead generation activities are focused on the best opportunities.   Make sure that you have the right team in the right roles, and make decisions quickly if changes are needed.
  5. Accelerate your operational planning process so that every single person in your organization knows their roles, responsibilities, and objectives for the near future. Instead of long term plans, these should be ninety-day plans which are revised a quarter from now. It is essential that each person have clear direction on their contribution. Hold your direct reports accountable for ensuring that each person they supervise has an individual action plan.
  6. Specify what you will NOT do. Clarify which markets, customers, and opportunities you will not focus on during this period.   It is essential to focus all of your time, energy, and resources only on the best customer opportunities in this environment. Identify specific ways of operating that may have served you in the past, but which will not work in this environment. “Keeping doing what you’ve been doing” is a recipe for disaster.

So how do you handle the question  “are we going to survive?”   Let me suggest a blueprint for what you can say. My recommendation is to outline very specific actions that are required to succeed. The time for big sweeping vision statements is not now. Try something like this: “I understand that all of you are concerned about the current environment, how it will affect our business, and what it means for you. You may be expecting me to say that bankruptcy is not an option. We are currently generating (or burning cash), so our risk level is high/medium/low and we are confident that we can operate for at least a year. Technically, failure is always an option if we fail to execute our plan – that is the nature of business. So let’s focus on the specifics of our plan: We will focus on specific customers and offerings. Make sure to name them here. This means that our sales and marketing organization must immediately refocus our lead generation, prospecting, and sales activities on this set of customers. We are going to not focus on other opportunities for the near term.  

Our product development organization will focus on these specific projects for future growth, name them.   Our operations groups will ensure that we are meeting all of our commitments effectively and efficiently.   We are all responsible for managing our cash effectively. All of these specifics require each person in the organization to play a specific role. In the next thirty days, we will make sure that these specifics get translated into individual action plans for everyone – and each one of you will be asked for your best thinking about how we can innovate, execute, and thrive in this environment. My direct reports are accountable for making this planning process happen. I welcome any further questions on any aspect of the business and commit to communicating on a weekly basis as events unfold. I appreciate the commitment each of you is making to the company.”    The coach of Marshall challenges the players to “lay it on the line until the final whistle blows, and if you do that, we cannot lose.” As the leader, you cannot ask for this commitment until you work through a specific game plan that can win. Do you have a specific game plan? If not, it’s time to get to work.   

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