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From Survive to Thrive


Nick McBain, Clarity Consultancy & Paul Cowan, Standard Life  Talent Management


The most-needed leadership qualities (energy, engagement, empathy, enterprise) can be the first casualties when things get tricky. 


In turbulent times organisations need people who are at their best: leaders who can thrive, rather than just survive. So, reflecting on our daily experience working with operational and strategic leaders, we thought we’d suggest a range of ways leaders can help themselves to develop and maintain their capacity to lead with dynamism and courage.


Downturn problems:

  • There is an element of loss and sadness in losing both close colleagues and parts of their wider network which can seriously deplete leaders’ resources of support and positivity.

  • Mid- to long-term career movement, so important to people with talent, appears to be taking a back seat for the length of the downturn and some see this as a permanent feature from now on.

  • Instead of taking risks, or innovating, or looking for better practice– all classic positive behaviours – many managers may default to building the safest job ‘bunker’ they can, to ride out the storm.

  • With headcount going down, those who stay on are doing 2 or 2½ jobs and feel overloaded and under-thanked, may develop very short focus and lose the capacity to think strategically.

  • By the time an upturn comes, these talented but overloaded managers, key people for the organisation’s next phase, will depart for the rejuvenation of a new employer very quickly.

This is an unprecedented, even unique, combination of individual and systemic challenges.


Mistaken responses:

  • Hunkering down – you go for safety at all costs, show a complete lack of risk tasking, become reluctant to propose new directions, and spend time looking for senior managemers to give you direction. Consequences: leaders operating at least two levels below your pay grade, overloading their top team, and adding insufficient value to the organisation’s activity and agility.

  • Becoming a ‘Teflon’ leader – you avoid accountability when things go wrong (and they will do!), and only pay attention to how well senior management rates you. Consequences: alienating other colleagues, who have greatest impact on anyone’s success. Regardless of their individual intelligence, networks and connections, leaders need other people at all levels.  

  • Becoming cynical – in wanting to be part of the peer group, you give in to the temptation of becoming cynical and colluding with the cynicism expressed by others.  If one of the strong themes is cynicism, leaders need courage to be different. Consequences: cynicism is more catching than swine flu, and can deplete the energy of whole swathes of staff.

  • Burning out – the opposite of hunker down in that you strive to take on too much in hope of impressing senior leadership and subsequently advance your career. Consequences: these are well documented – poor decision-making, low morale, demoralising of key talent, narrow spreading of delegation, degraded ability to think clearly at all ... let alone ‘out of the box’.



We need to recognise that these responses are understandable during these unpredictable times.  Apart from getting some coaching, here are some really simple and practical ways to turn this behaviour from a need to survive into a way to thrive:

  • Take a Step Back – when you are feeling overwhelmed from the sheer pace of these times, you need to take time out to view the situation you are in.  When you are caught up in the day to day grind of delivery it can become difficult to see the path ahead.  Plan some thinking time in your schedule where you will only focus on the situation you are in and the possibilities of where you could be.

  • Honestly Appraise Yourself – these times call for some serious honesty. You need to have a full and frank appraisal of your career to date.  What have been the highlights?  Take a full inventory of your career portfolio.  Are you clear what exactly you are offering to the world of work in terms of your skills, knowledge and attitude? Ask a trusted friend or colleague to help you with this exercise as this step is vital in moving to the next level.

  • Refocus –Now is not the time for self limiting beliefs like “my career has reached the final plateau here” or "I only know the Sales business”. Successful people have made major career transformations within their current organisation, or completely reinvented themselves in another industry. The key attribute for their success was a laser like focus on the future and not the past.

  • Invest – you need to invest in the stock of the only company that truly matters, ME PLC.  This investment could include contracting with an executive coach, enrolling on an external development course, learning a new technical skill, attend a trade conference or simply buy lunch for an individual whose career journey you admire.  You can’t sit back and wait for your company to invest in your career in the short term  Personal development investment is the key to growing your future so don’t be afraid to speculate to accumulate.

  • Value your networks – one of the dangers people make in these times is to be so internally focused that they neglect their wider network.  There is never a better time to reconnect with all your ex colleagues, college tutors, subscribe to an external on line group or even start up your own blog. These people can help with environmental scanning of your industry/profession and they often bring a fresh and exciting new perspective   Also look to build internal alliances that are genuine over time and look for an internal mentor that can help you navigate the choppy waters.

  • Enjoy the ‘other stuff’ – we realize that your career is an important element of your whole life experience.  However, maintaining your contact with the’ real world’ can be a very healthy outlet to work stress.  So maintain and build activates that take your mind to other places such as community service or volunteering.  Being made to feel humble once and a while can be a great antidote to the career hassles you are facing right now.