By now, every sentient CEO knows this is the time for bold action, for innovation, for challenging old assumptions and demonstrating leadership.  While many CEOs relish that challenge, few small businesses actually have the kind of management team that can really support innovation.

Innovation simply demands a very different kind of leadership than the “caretaker” leaders found in many smaller organizations. So how do you know if your team is up to the challenge?   Don’t listen to what they say – everybody is talking the innovation game now.   As my old boss, Steve Ettridge used to say… “turn off the sound and look at the picture.”

Here is my leadership acid test:  Is your management team taking bold, innovative action in the face of the economic downturn?  Are they measuring performance, holding each other accountable, and humbly adjusting course as they find (and tell you about) mistakes?

Or are they blaming circumstances, battling internally, and jockeying for position?  Look at your grapevine, are rumors increasing?   Are people knocking on your door to ask about their careers?  Do you feel like you are choking on increased gossip, fear, blame and paralysis?

Let’s be honest, nobody knows exactly what to do right now.  Nobody has perfect information.  But by now, most organizations are mobilized and taking action.   Some will succeed, many will fail.

I see organizations sorting themselves into two tribes.  The first tribe is the cohesive, well managed innovators.  They are cutting fat carefully, and directing time and money into the future initiatives with the most promise.

The second tribe is the circular firing squad.  Slashing the good right along with the bad, at war internally, and they will probably not survive the downturn to emerge as a viable entity.

Here are the signs of a cohesive, innovative leadership team:

  • Your team regularly challenges your thinking, makes you a bit uncomfortable, tests your assumptions and suggests new ways of looking at old problems. When you share a new idea, it is greeted with enthusiasm and “Hey, that could work if…”  instead of “That will never work, I don’t have time, or I don’t have a budget for that” or worse, people SAY they will take action, but do not.
  • Your management team has specific, measurable, metrics to monitor their results and each individual on their team knows exactly what is expected of them.  People “own” their mistakes and failures and team help each other but also hold each other accountable for results.  Information is shared, everyone knows what is going on – even bad news is shared openly.
  • You see an increased cohesion in the team – pulling together, and setting aside petty grievances, celebrating small victories.
  • You are frequently surprised to hear of their decisions and results – they did not talk about doing it, they just quietly set about doing it.

And here are the symptoms of a circular-firing-squad leadership team:

  • Your managers do not have firsthand knowledge of the issues your customers are experiencing.
  • Your managers come up with “ideas” but rarely prioritize and take committed action on the few things that really matter.  Everyone is an expert in what won’t work, but nobody sticks their neck out for an idea that might work.  Meetings are unproductive talk-fests.
  • Your managers are surprised by fairly predictable external events and worse, did not have a contingency plan for dealing with those surprises.  (Hope is not a strategy)   Communication is often poor and decisions made hastily.  Externally their actions look erratic, irrational and unfair.
  • Your managers do not have a firm grasp of the metrics that predict future performance.   They do not have “trigger points” identified to take action.  (“If sales fall below X we need to layoff 3 people”)
  • Problems land on your desk without any hard analysis or suggested action plans.  People whine about problems without taking ownership for getting results despite the obstacles.  You feel like you need to make too many decisions “below your pay grade.”
  • Most telling – you feel like you cannot trust their judgment.

If you have the circular-firing-sqaud team, you need to admit that you hired most of these people, and you let their performance deteriorate into what you have right now.  Now all you have is false promises, delay, failure, excuses, blame, and really poor information to make critical decisions.

Instead of having a team who can innovate their way out of the downturn, all you can do is pray for the end – you cannnot outperform the market – in fact you will probably be viewed as a meal ticket by your better organized competitors.