Test Yourself: Do Without

Are you prepared to lead with just your own skills?

Three days after Christmas the temperature was slightly above freezing. After spending the bulk of the previous three days in the house, I went for a bike ride.

On my previous ride, my bike computer showed a low-battery symbol. Sure enough, it was dead by the time I pulled on my warm-weather gear. Because I was in no danger of breaking the posted speed limit and have probably ridden my planned route a hundred times, this did no harm. In fact, I probably was more in tune with physical effort versus miles per hour, which might make for a better workout.

The other problem, however, caused me to take a different tack. Neither my front nor my real derailleur would operate properly. I could only shift in one direction, most likely because of moisture in the derailleur or gunk on my cables. After messing around with the shifters, I settled on a middle gear and rode the route in a fixed gear. Not a problem on flat land but a challenge with hills — and I live in an area with hills. I had to adjust my route, coast on the downhills, and stand up and grind it out on the uphills. My usual autopilot ride turned into one that I had to plan for.

Constricting options or removing tools can be a great way to train for tough situations. When I used to fly airplanes, most of the training hours I put in to stay proficient involved an instructor failing a different part of the airplane — up to and including engines — with a hood over my head so that all I could see was instrumentation inside the cockpit. The objective was to keep the shiny side up and not completely lose your cool while you sorted out the problem.

In your organizational life, you probably have many accoutrements to help you lead and manage: an administrative assistant, an executive dashboard, functional heads, whiz-bang technology, tech support, etc. When we combine this with the fact that you logically desire standard operating procedures and routine even in your role as an executive, your hoped-for predictability can become a severe limitation when the stuff hits the fan or you stumble upon an opportunity that is outside of that comfortable, predictable state.

While flying aircraft, I had several occasions when equipment failed in tough situations. I’d be writing this blog from “beyond” had I not  trained for those emergencies. (The training did not, however, stop me from barely controlled panic!)

Why wait for disaster or opportunity to strike before you think about how you’ll lead and manage in those situations? Think differently about your work and see what happens. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Imagine that your bank calls your line of credit. How could you improve your cash conversion cycle to survive?

2. Assume that you had to grow your business with half your current  marketing budget. What activities would you keep, and what would you jettison?

3. Imagine that your two best executives leave simultaneously. What are your short- and long-term solutions?

4. Presume that your top competitor develops a game-changing technology, product or service to meet the underlying need of your best customers. How could you change your business model to compete and win?

5. Your executive assistant will one day have a family emergency that requires a week to deal with. Prepare by giving them the day off and try to do his or her work in addition to yours. You may realize that you’re inadvertently creating chaos or that you’ve become helpless without someone propping you up.

6. Pretend that a government agency such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or National Labor Relations Board enacts some strict ruling — you know, the potential big one that keeps you awake at night — that changes the rules of the game. How would you survive?

Don’t drive yourself nuts with this, but a prepared mind deals with both disaster and opportunity much better than a mind on autopilot.

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