When the World Starts Running Down You Make the Best of What's Still Around

Posted on October 18, 2008 by Tony Uphoff

Always been partial to the wisdom of a good Sting lyric. Everywhere you turn these days there are troubling signs on the economy. To debate whether we are in a recession or not is ignoring the obvious. We are in the midst of a significant economic crisis that has reached global proportions. And it is going to take decisive action to get us out of this difficult phase. As I talk with people in my company, our customers, others in the media business and friends and family the themes of economic crisis are consistent but the reactions vary wildly. They span the gamut from solid pragmatic reactions to denial to fear, anxiety and panic.

Public figures that we assume have a deep understanding of the issues causing this mess aren't helping. Jim Cramer of The Street.com, fundamentally a well informed shill for the equities market, is on television imploring people; "whatever money you need over the next 5 years take it out of the market right now". Economists of all shapes and sizes, commentators in every form of media, colleagues, family members and even "Joe The Plumber" are spouting off about the economy. The reality is that rising anxiety, fueled by non stop, conflicting commentary, government engagement and acute market upheavals, are creating a level of financial panic.

Princeton psychologist Hadley Cantril noted that social panics occur when large groups can't discern reliable sources of advice from unreliable ones. To this point it's a logical conclusion that the always on, white noise jumble of internet, television, radio, newspaper, magazine, social networks, family, colleagues and government leaders, all spouting gloom and doom about the economy, is actually making this panic worse.

So as a business leader in the media industry what should you be doing to lead and manage through a time like this? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Seek Trusted, Tested Advice
All markets are driven by three main drivers; fear, greed and stupidity. It's easy when panic is in the air to prey on these emotions. At times of extraordinary change you also see the emergence of false prophets. "Experts" are everywhere and only too happy to add to your anxiety and offer their opinions and advice. Turn to people with expertise you trust and you know has been tested. In our company TechWeb we are lucky in that many of our leaders have been battle tested in previous market cycles and know how to lead and manage through economic changes. We also have access to some extraordinary business minds at our parent company UBM . David Levin our CEO has deep operating experience, having built and run multiple companies as well as strong financial skills honed by experience at Bain Consulting and in the venture industry. Our CFO Nigel Wilson holds a Phd in Economics from MIT and as well has had significant experience leading businesses through challenging economic cycles. Starting early this year at our UBM leadership meetings, we begin having regular briefings on the economy, including bringing in economists from the major firms as well as media industry analysts to provide us with analysis and perspective on the economic climate. This is something we continue to do as well.
  • Focus on What You Can Control
Panic creates the rather odd dynamic of driving people to obsess about things they can't control. In our business our focus is very clear:
  1. Build even stronger relationships with customers
  2. Watch costs carefully
  3. Execute, execute, execute
  4. Take share of marketing budget
  5. Work as a team
Take a deep breath. Focus your energy and time and do the same for those you work with. Panic doesn't scale. Focus does.
  • Keep Perspective
Take the time to review history. Warren Buffet's recent NY Times Op Ed piece provides great perspective. He notes that in the 20th century, the United States endured two world wars and other traumatic and expensive military conflicts; the Depression; a dozen or so recessions and financial panics; oil shocks; a flu epidemic; and the resignation of a disgraced president. Yet the Dow rose from 66 to 11,497. He goes on to note that in waiting for the comfort of good news, investors are ignoring Wayne Gretsky's advice: "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been". There is also context and perspective to be gained in watching how other organizations are reacting to this economic phase. The venture fund Sequoia offered practical advice to their portfolio companies, encouraging them to take decisive action early in their now famous silicon valley presentation.
  • Listen
Another component of stress and anxiety is that they can cause people to stop listening. Listen closely to your customers. Listen closely to your employees. Listen also to what your competitors and other parts of your ecosystem are saying and doing. You will likely learn something that is actionable.
  • Be Visible
Leadership requires presence. Don't hide in your office, in meetings or on your computer. Keep your door open, meet with your teams and be accessible to all of your people. Remember that 80%+ of communication is non verbal. Don't assume that your communication or your understanding of others is accurate based on email and phone alone.
  • Blow Off Stress
For me it's time with my family and friends, running, enjoying music, reading and on the weekends when I'm home, going surfing. At times like this I find that my running mileage tends to go up. Not necessarily a conscious process likely a natural reaction. btw on a related note, my apologies to the woman who was out getting her newspaper in Palo Alto earlier this week, who I scared the hell out of when I came running by at 5:00am!

So this is my perspective. I'd love to hear yours. How are you leading and managing through this challenging time? What advice would you give to others?,

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