Originally published in ACA International’s Collector magazine February, 2009.


By Jim Struck


A year ago I wrote a column for Management Trends on execution.  Certainly our need to execute on goals in our organizations has not changed.  What has changed is the landscape of our world. 


“These are the times that try men’s soul” was very appropriate when Thomas Paine wrote it on December 23, 1776.  We were a people struggling for our independence.  Today represents a different struggle, but no less far reaching as it impacts how we live, work, and view the world.  Whether we work on the credit side or the collection side our challenges have dramatically increased.  Many of those challenges are how we are dealing with the personal impact of what is occurring and how to best lead in these times.  I hope this article will offer some choices.


Our Environment

Not quite a year ago the big news was the price of oil as it went north of $147/barrel and gas about $4/gallon in many areas of the county.  The cost of energy was front and center.  The presidential candidates were debating how to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and many of us were preparing to be closer to home for our summer vacation.  If we drove an SUV, or other large vehicle, we were looking for a way to decrease our driving.  It all seemed very bleak.  Now, the energy question seems to have diminished in importance (exactly what the Arabs want).


The avalanche of sub-prime mortgage failures created a litany of cascading economic news that emerged to occupy our summer/fall/winter…how long?  We are treated daily to images and information about the freefall of the stock market, the credit crises, the financial institutions that need bailing out, the housing market that is in decline, foreclosures, increased unemployment, and the debate over how to handle the big three automakers. 


Gone is any rational sense of what is predictable, and dependability seems non-existent.  Also gone is what we knew about accountability and the free enterprise system.  We seem to be embracing socialism, at least temporarily, a little more each day.  It will be interesting to look back and see how this unprecedented time of government intervention is viewed two years from now.  I suspect that will depend on the success of the intervention(s).


And here we are, in the credit and collection business trying to make sense of the environment.  Credit at the moment is difficult to obtain.  The collection side is seeing more business, but it is less recoverable.  Out costs of doing business continue to rise, so less recoverable business further exacerbates the challenge of turning a profit.  Many of my friends say, “I bet your business is booming!”  “Yes, and so are the challenges!”


 Making A Shift in Our Thinking

The first step in dealing with all the negative news these days is to consider how you react to the headlines.  You have a choice in how you react.  The next step is to remind yourself to BREATHE!  Not in the robotic, life sustaining way, but in a deep, cleansing way that forces us to stop and take notice.  Breathing in this way has a way of calming, and a way of creating the space for us to relax and set the stage for us to assess where we are and what we might want to do differently.


We need many of these “interruptions” in order to just get our arms around what is going on.  Most of us have never lived through a time when so much of what we believe about significant things in our lives (i.e., our institutions, financial security, ethics, the free enterprise system, retirement, etc.) has been brought into question.  With so much uncertainty it can be very difficult to cope.


What I have rediscovered are the basics of what I know about attitude, success, and the happiness in our lives.  That they are embedded in what we think and what we do.  They are embedded in finding the opportunities and solutions.  They are embedded in making shifts in how we think and what we do.  This is the groundwork for changing how we cope and get through this. 


The economic news we have been receiving over the past ten plus months is like being around an employee with a bad attitude.  Let’s call him “Bob.”  Every day for ten months Bob has been coming to where we live and work and been spewing information about all that is wrong with the world around us. 


From the beginning of February until the end of November we have had 303 days, roughly 7,272 hours.  Bob’s been at work during those 7,000 hours telling us our two major personal assets (our home and our retirement account) are worth considerably less than even six months previous, that for millions of us our way of earning a living is in jeopardy, that we will pay the leaders of some of those same failing companies millions of dollars when they leave, that major companies need bailed out or we’ll experience even more financial calamity.  And for good measure, Bob throws in the fact that the world hasn’t suddenly become safer during this period.  Is it any wonder we don’t feel great?


Like all employees with a bad attitude they have a way of affecting those around them. From my perspective Bob needs to be told to just “shut up!”  Bob’s negativity is affecting our attitudes in ways that aren’t healthy or helpful.  We can’t personally control most of what he is talking about so it’s time for him to just be quiet.


In kicking Bob to the curb you may begin to watch the news less often and stopped reading and listening to all the financial news.  You may refocus on activities and people that give you energy, and avoid activities and people that sap your energy.


For many people how they think and act is shaped by emotional baggage from their past, present, or some future worry.  The baggage of the past is…

  • If only I had stayed in school.
  • “If only I had spent more time with my kids.”
  • “If only I had married someone else.”
  • “If only I had chose a different job.”
  • “If only I had moved my money out of the stock market sooner.”

 The baggage of the present sounds like this:

  • “I had planned to retire in two years, but my retirement plan is now 40% less than it was last year.  What now? 
  • “I’ve been downsized.  What now?” 
  • I have a lot of debt.  What now?”
  • My spouse is unhappy.  What now?”

 The baggage of the future sounds like this:

  • “What if I lose my job.”
  • “What if I end up alone.”
  • “What if the economy never gets back to where it was?”,


Whether we are focused on the past, the present, and/or the future the key to dealing with these is how we think about them and how we choose to act.  It’s important to understand that the only time we’ve been given is now. 


We create certain patterns within our minds that have been shaped for years.  Some of these patterns are not particularly helpful.  They may be choices we are making about our self-esteem, how we deal with stress, fear, resentment and anger, or the inability to handle change.  Regardless, harmful thought patterns prevent us from moving on.  Does any of this ring true for you?  Your answer can have a significant impact on how you live and how you lead.  The “why” of how our thought patterns got there is not nearly as important as what we want to do differently at this point. 


It might be time to change your thinking.  To accomplish this, you have to do something differently.  Consider turning off the TV, not looking at your retirement account statements, changing what you are reading, and make sure you hang out with people that give you energy. 


These actions changed the dynamic of what was going on around me and made it easier to focus on what were the opportunities and solutions.  Our society often fixates on “what is wrong,” “what needs fixed.”  While this is helpful with systems and technology it is not always helpful with human dynamics.  By changing you actions you can take back parts of your life that have been influenced by all the negative information. 


The Change That Impacts Our Leadership

The change that impacts our leadership begins with us.  How far our departments, divisions, or companies go depends a lot on our ability to be aware of changes in our behavior.  Much of this depends on our ability to influence others in how they see their work, achievement, and the organization.  A leader’s job is not to motivate their team, but to create the atmosphere in which the individuals on the team can be motivated.  The very best leaders work hard at creating a work place that helps people to engage in their work through clear expectations, supporting them, and valuing their work.


The ability to do that well starts with what we see in ourselves and how we respond to that information.  Sometimes, when the performance around us is not what we want, the first question to ask is, “How is my behavior leading to what I see?”  In our current environment their could be an additional question about how our behavior is contributing to the uncertainty and negative news


That is why it is so important during difficult times to challenge how we lead.  Are we projecting an atmosphere of pessimism, or are we helping others deal with their pessimism by helping them to look for the solutions and other ways of looking at a situation? Are we projecting an atmosphere of pessimism, or are we helping others deal with their pessimism by looking for solutions.


This is a time to be reaching out more to our people.  Whether you can do anything about the situation or not, people like information and camaraderie.  Too often I see leaders isolate themselves because they are trying to deal with their own thoughts and to figure out how to cope.  Isolating creates more fear. Communicate more information about what is going on within your department, division, or company.  Share your successes and challenges.  If appropriate, solicit staff experience and ideas to address the challenges.  People appreciate the opportunity to participate and be part of the solution. 


Good leaders set aside their own feelings in order to give others more of what they need.  Whether this is more information, more encouragement, understanding, direction, etc. you have to summon the discipline – and sometimes the courage – to do it.  Don’t forget to spend time with your peers.  It’s important to share your feelings and offer encouragement.  You will be glad that you made the investment.


The bottom line is this: You must pay attention to how motivating your culture is to employees.  You are not responsible for how staff deal with these difficult times, but you are responsible for the atmosphere you help create, on both a personal level and an organizational level.  The better you do with this the better they will do.  The converse is also true.


Ask yourself the big questions:  How do we reward and motivate people?  Do these programs work to help motivate staff?  Are our contests generating some enthusiasm while they are generating dollars for our clients?  Are we keeping score of the right measures?  Does everyone know the score (how we’re doing as individuals, as a team, and as an organization)?  Is my behavior helping or hurting my team, my division, my organization? 


Finally, find some humor individually and collectively.  Laughter is the great reliever of stress – just like breathing.