When Trouble Comes In Waves, Leaders Snap Into Action

Originally published
Originally published: 1/1/2013

Acting quickly can turn the tide in your favor.

It may start with a phone call informing you that something horrible has happened. One of your top people has a personal problem that will shed a bad light on your company; or, you get a letter from one of your biggest customers stating: “It’s been fun while it lasted. Have a nice life. Sayonara.” As a wave of nausea sweeps over you, your chief accounting lieutenant barges in with still more bad news that ultimately means you don’t have as much cash as you thought you’d had.

Trouble comes in many sizes and shapes, and often it comes in unexpected waves. As the boss, you must always be prepared to provide direction. While any one problem could be monumental, two or more are almost debilitating. What must you do?

First, figuratively and literally take three deep breaths and count to 10. Write down the key issues, crystallizing options and setting priorities of who on your team does what. Also write out some ideas of how to get started. Step two, clear your calendar and focus.

The trick in attacking multiple major problems simultaneously is to compartmentalize each of them, quickly determining the downside risks and coming up with temporary fixes to stop any bleeding, followed by long-term solutions. Let’s say another crisis hits when you receive a notice that due to commodity price increases, the cost of popular equipment you install is going up drastically, and you know your customers won’t be receptive. The consequences could be enormous, and equally disturbing is the fact that dealing with this will be incredibly time-consuming, costly, and will surely divert the attention of management away from sales and earnings goals.

Rather than bemoan your current state of affairs, gather your team together and start asking questions: Why is this happening? Is there only one supplier in the market raising prices? What are the alternatives? Is there any indication this is a temporary blip? Does this call for a realignment of services?

Time can be your biggest enemy or your greatest ally. If you procrastinate and don’t swing into action, the problems will proliferate. If, however, you jump in with both feet immediately, you may be able to stem the tide in your favor much more quickly. One thing is for sure: The good fairy won’t solve these problems, and your only choice is to take charge.

Of course, you’ll have more than a few restless nights and your calendar will become an instant nightmare as you deal with these problems du jour. Nevertheless, at least, you’ll have started the process.

A few words of caution: Delegate aspects of the problems to your best and brightest, but also make sure you’re kept in the loop. An effective leader knows how to juggle multiple issues at once. One consolation is that if being the boss were easy, then everyone would do it. In fact, being a good leader takes a keen mind, an incredible sense of urgency, and a strong stomach.

Troubles come with the territory. When you’re at the top, though, the height can be a bit frightening, but the view is always spectacular.   

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. Feuer’s columns appear courtesy of a partnership with Smart Business,, which originally published this column.




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