The past year was certainly quite the ride! Last fall, we watched anxiously as celebrated institutions collapsed, erasing billions in worth and thousands of jobs almost overnight. We were swept up in a chain reaction we couldn't quite understand, a downward spiral that threatened our way of life. And even with the markets stabilized, we still wonder if the worst is yet to come.
Yep, American business sure belly-flopped into the modern economic era. Terms like moral hazard, stress tests, and "too big to fail" suddenly entered our lexicon. Of course, looking back, we shouldn't be surprised: We lived beyond our means, saved little, and deferred our obligations. Now, we face a changing business climate, possessing fewer tools to manage shifts in demographics, technology, and seats of power.
In the wake of the credit and housing meltdowns, there are business truths—both recent and timeless—that can only be dismissed at our peril. Among them:
The world is watching. "Let's keep this between us." Not anymore. Today, your conduct can be broadcast worldwide, moments after it happens. With social media, video sharing, and countless blogs, you can have a permanent, career-damaging record online, regardless of merit. And it's all one Google search away. In this environment, it's critical to exercise self-control and fairness at all times. You never know who is watching and listening.
Adopt a cause. In school, we were coached on the fundamentals: providing value and service to the market, keeping balance sheets in the black, and delivering an equitable return to shareholders. Along the way, companies also became stewards of an unwritten social contract.
Whether it's enlisting in ecological or social justice causes, you're now expected to invest the time, people, and dollars to make the world better. Fair or not, your mandate has expanded beyond your community…and everyone has their hands out. It's now good business to be a good global citizen, where your cause becomes your brand.
Make way for Generation Y. They're tech-savvy and live for the moment. They ignore traditional boundaries and practices. And they're bubbling with ideas, expecting to make a splash right now. Meet the Millennials, hellbent on bypassing the rat race. Like it or not, they're the future—and they've set high expectations for you. The question is, can you adapt, build bridges, and harness their potential?
Prepare for worst-case scenarios. These days, we face greater uncertainties and constraints. We're expected to do more with less, while simultaneously competing globally with organizations that are increasingly diversified and heavily financed by their governments. And we're coping with all this under the looming threat of higher taxes and regulatory burdens.
In this ascetic era, popular sentiments will eventually produce an overcorrection. Don't wait for a Sarbanes-Oxley to get in step. Take the pulse of the powers-that-be, understand their intentions, anticipate their inevitable excesses, and prepare your organization before these swings become codified in law.
Imagine what should be. Look at your competitors now. In five years, most will be replaced by companies in other markets, or upstarts that don't yet exist. And they won't enter your space directly. Instead, they'll apply your unique proposition to emerging technologies, channels, partnerships, and markets. Like it or not, you're already a mature industry—and your product cycle gets shorter every day.
Maybe it's time to reshape your boundaries. Use the Kindle model to apply a worn concept (books) to a growing trend (on-demand electronic delivery), so as to challenge an entrenched system (publishers and booksellers). Examine new ways consumers are working, communicating, and purchasing. Invest your R&D dollars there, before you're playing catch-up.
Don't get complacent. It's easy to play to our strengths. Whether you're a finance whiz or world-class closer, you're a leader for a reason. Eventually, however, you need to venture past your strengths. In sports, your liabilities limit your teammates' options, forcing them change their gameplan or pick up your slack.
Business is no different. Take inventory of your weak spots and consciously work to widen your perspective. Otherwise, you'll eventually fail to recognize opportunities that may initially seem negligible.
Draw the line. "It's no big deal, they'll never notice." You face more temptations than ever. You might take a short cut here or there, believing you'll make it up later. But it just gets easier each time. It isn't hard to act honorably in good times; the true test comes when your reputation, job, or company is on the line. Know early which acts cross the line and which risks are too great. And never, ever compromise these limits.
The pendulum will swing back. You've tightened your belt, frozen salaries, and cut back benefits. Your employees watched friends pink-slipped and picked up their workloads. They're biding their time; they haven't forgotten. You have leverage now, but the economy will rev up again. When it does, what will motivate your best people to stay put? The worst has passed. Now is the time to start shoring up those frayed relationships, before it's too late.
Remember your work-life balance. Years ago, people funneled their energies into family, worship, and community. In these outlets, they could leave their mark and life made sense. Whether it's a shortage of time or surplus of conceit, these priorities have shifted. Now, people often seek fulfillment in their careers. For many, work is the place to find identity, security, solace, and meaning.
But what happens after you land the big deal or reach the inner circle? Don't take your other life—loved ones, health and
passions—for granted. They're the real reasons why we all work.
Remember the basics. You can study the new theories and speak the lingo, but in the end, the basics still dictate whether you're successful. And they haven't changed much. Your people still expect you to be responsive, supportive, and scrupulous.
They yearn for someone who listens, shows respect, and invests time in building relationships. They crave vision and direction. And they never forget those gestures, large and small, that convey gratitude and empathy. Without this foundation, no pricey consultant or bestselling guru can save you.
SMM columnist Jeff Schmitt works in publishing in Dubuque, Iowa. He can be contacted at email@example.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at jefflschmitt.