ASSE 2010: Management Strategies to Survive the Recession and Thrive in the Aftermath

In the June 15 opening session of ASSE Safety 2010, Geoffrey Colvin, senior editor for Fortune magazine, gave attendees an overview of what business leaders can do to respond to the financial crisis and come out stronger on the other side – by better understanding risk, creating new solutions to new problems, upgrading employees and more.

“You’re the experts on safety, not me, and I’m not going to stand here and try to tell you how to do your job,” Colvin told the Safety 2010 audience. “All of us are dealing with a new world that’s going to take some new thinking if we’re going to succeed.”

Colvin said economically challenging times actually are opportunities that can shift the entire competitive order. The best business leaders, he said, take advantage of this opportunity by resetting their priorities.

First, successful leaders must understand that their customers have new needs and therefore require need new solutions. While many companies reflexively cut their prices during a recession, there is almost always a better solution, Colvin said.

“Customers today in any business have wants and needs that are different from what they were yesterday, and to understand and to respond to them is enormously valuable,” he explained.

Colvin also pointed out that in recent years, business and financial world leaders have learned a lot about risk. Most notably, they have learned to listen to “the responsible fringe” – respected, credential people with ideas and suggestions that aren’t in the mainstream – and to anticipate not what things that can go wrong, but what sequences that can go wrong.

“The best business leaders are learning to get a better handle on their risks,” he said.

The Most Valuable Asset

When Colvin asks leaders about their competitive advantage, the same response crops up again and again.

“I’ve asked a lot of people and they all give the same answer: ‘It’s our people, our culture, our relationships,’” he said. “If that’s true, if that’s what people really think is their most valuable asset [and] the source of their competitive advantage, this is really a tremendous time to upgrade that asset.”

Turbulent times, Colvin said, provide an excellent opportunity to evaluate workers “frequently, rigorously and honestly” and determine the organization’s true performers. In addition, he pointed out that this is an ideal time for employers to “steal great people” from other companies.

“If you have the competitive intelligence and know who those people are, this is the time to get them. This is the time they’re feeling more discouraged,” he said.

As CEOs work to attract the best possible employees, many are eager to hire and retain capable young employees. To do so, Colvin said, employers must provide training and educational opportunities for these up-and-comers. While some CEOS worry that they will train these young stars only to have the employees leave and make use of their training elsewhere, Colvin warns that companies won’t even have a shot at these employees if they don’t provide training and leadership development opportunities.

“The best young people want to be improved,” he said. “They want training and development. They want to be built as leaders.”

Colvin also stressed that leaders must grow themselves; be pushed beyond their current level of abilities; be visible to the staff; and show fearlessness – whether they are truly fearless or not.

Finally, despite all the talk about turbulent times and a double-dip recession, Colvin had an ultimately hopeful message for the ASSE Safety 2010 audience: “I passionately believe we are going to come through this fine,” he told attendees.

“Have faith. Everything is going to be okay,” he added. “Believe it.”

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