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The historic economic meltdown of 2008 gave us an almost limitless supply of practical business lessons. Perhaps the most impactful of those lessons is that there can be tremendous value in a crisis. When taking action is just an option, it's easy to continue having meetings about it. But when the banks stop making loans, customers are canceling orders, revenue is plummeting, and your cash flow is slowing down to a trickle, you begin to realize that more meetings aren't the answer. You have to do something and do it now.
It's been said that a recession is a reallocation of money from the scared to the bold. The reaction of many people to a crisis is to hunker down, play defense, and protect what they've got. They're scared. They're like a squirrel in the middle of the road with a fast-moving car heading straight for it. They turn left, then right, then freeze. Only the fast reflexes of the car driver can save the day. But a crisis doesn't care. It won't swerve to miss you. Survival requires action.
Hard times bring out the motivational slogans. One of the most popular slogans in times of recession is "Recession? What recession? I refuse to participate in the recession." I understand the idea behind that line of thinking. The problem is that if you don't recognize the existence of a recession, you'll likely miss the extraordinary opportunity it presents. Not participating in a recession means that it's business as usual. But it's most definitely not business as usual. Everything's different, and you have to take advantage of the changes. You should not only participate in a recession but do it with the pedal to the medal. Don't pretend that it doesn't exist -- use it.
In January 2009, I was working with a company at their World Leadership Conference. Six hundred of the top leaders of this company had gathered to plot their course of action in the face of a monumental economic downturn. The company was, fortunately, in a position of strength, with a strong balance sheet, talented employees, and great products. They were, however, not the leader in many of their markets.
One of the division presidents made an impassioned plea to the attendees. "This recession won't last forever," he said. "We can't make the mistake of letting it pass us by. We can't find ourselves waking up one day having let this incredible opportunity slip away. Please don't waste a perfectly good crisis!"
Joe Calloway, author of Becoming a Category of One: How Extraordinary Companies Transcend Commodity and Defy Comparison, is a consultant on employee engagement and performance whose client list reads like a Who's Who of business -- from newspapers in Sweden, hotels in Great Britain, and computer companies in South Africa to world brands like BMW and IBM. He speaks frequently on business trends and has been inducted into the International Speakers Hall of Fame.