Leading Under Uncertainty

At a previous company, we brought in an external CEO to help us raise our second round of financing.  He came in guns blazing and as the months passed claimed to have found a number of investors interested in our company.  He took several fairly expensive trips oversees all in the name of drumming up sales and investors.  He told the board that the fund raising was going extremely well; no need to put any contingency plans in place.  In total he said found $8M in new money ready to be invested if only someone was willing to take a lead position.  The current investor stepped up and said they would lead the second round, just give them the names.  That’s when the rubber hit the road: the total amount of money available was actually $0M.  A month after we had just hired an employee, we all had to take 70% pay cuts to keep the company afloat. The CEO couldn’t afford such a pay cut (even though he was already being paid way more than everyone else) and left the company. Two months later we made our first sale and entered one of the more prosperous times as a company.

Leading during times of uncertainty can be difficult.  We want to see clearly how we will accomplish our goals, but as we move up in a company the goals become increasingly difficult to see all the way to the end, at least at the beginning.  Sometimes we respond to this with delusional positive thinking as seen above.  We hear what we want to hear, shut out what we don’t and think that if we just believe strongly enough, it’s all going to work out.  But usually it doesn’t.  Fortunately for them, and unfortunately for us,  those who are delusional once are usually delusional twice and go on never remembering the lesson they should have learned.

Another response to uncertainty is to only commit to what we know we can deliver.  Engineers can often take this position.  We only want to commit to what we know we can take on and if we don’t know how, we want to spend lots of time thinking about how we might get there before committing.  When this mentality takes hold, it kills the vision and makes the organization feel like a balloon with no air.

A third way we can respond is to respond with faith.  We know what the organization can accomplish even though we don’t know how we will get there. We have confidence in the team to make things happen and  we have hope for finding the path as we progress.  We commit to something beyond what we can see and have faith that we’ll be able to deliver as we continue to make progress down the road. We don’t shun bad news, but instead listen to the data and continue to adapt as we learn, always with the goal in mind. We take our commitments seriously and figure out how to make them happen navigating through the uncertainty as we go.

Throughout my career, I’ve seen a wide range of responses to uncertainty. The best managers I’ve worked for have responded with faith.  It doesn’t mean they were perfect and met every commitment, but rather that they stepped up to drive the organization where it needed to go and inspired those they lead to further greatness.







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