Our superpower is helping leadership navigate out of distress
As we approach transactions with empathy, recognizing that human beings are driving the process, we recognize that the complexity of restructuring can be overwhelming, even debilitating, for management. Many of the best leaders developed during times of growth and prosperity are not prepared for the self-doubt, criticism and organizational chaos that accompany times of crisis. It may be due to the exhaustion from struggling to move the immovable, or the inability to separate oneself from historic decisions or step away from the noise and see the larger picture.
Going through restructuring can be one of the worst times of someone’s life. Most have never done it before and likely won’t again. But our team at Areté has been through this process with clients many times. We realize that, unfortunately, this stuff happens; businesses and industries change. It’s our job to bring our credibility to the team to help leaders regain the confidence they need to right the ship.
Facing imposter syndrome and denial
Clients come to us during what they see as their largest failure. Whether they’re at fault or not is irrelevant. If you’re any kind of leader you believe you’re at fault for essentially driving the business to its demise. When I try to explain this to people who haven’t been in this position, I tell them to imagine sitting in a room in front of your employees without knowing how to make their payroll. Everyone is looking at you. It doesn’t matter if it’s one hundred or thousands of people in that room. They may lose their jobs and you’re at the helm. It’s the worst feeling—you never thought you’d be here and you don’t know what to do. You’re worried about how everyone else feels about you and you go through this fear cycle that just eats people alive.
Executives are human and can become paralyzed by fear just like anyone else. They lose confidence in their ability to make decisions. Sometimes we find that the person in charge really isn’t capable of making those decisions and shouldn’t be in that position. After years of experience, I can usually pick that up pretty quickly. Then, I have to tell them in the most gracious way possible. But more often than not, they are simply experiencing imposter syndrome.
I’ve been there too; I’ve worried about what other people thought. But I realized that you have to let that go to be effective. In distress, it’s important to compartmentalize feedback. If you don’t, you’ll just continue to feel like a horrible human and remain unable to move the organization forward. As with many things in life, you won’t always make everyone happy. You’re in the driver’s seat and they’re not. Your focus must be on maximizing the enterprise for employees, customers, vendors, etc. as best as possible.
Sometimes it’s the other way around. There’s some hubris about the situation, even denial, and egos get in the way. I’ve been there too. My mother passed away while I was at a high point in my career, working 80 hours a week with a family as well as a back and a heart problem. I still didn’t get it. I was ready to take an even more demanding position until my wife said, “I thought this was going to get easier.” Until that point, I wasn’t fully aware of what was going on and how it was affecting my family and my health.
Sometimes it takes time for leaders to come to grips with their situation too, but one of our best skills at Areté is guiding clients as it eventually becomes real for them.
Areté’s superpower is navigating leadership out of this distress. Business is personal, so we lead with empathy, almost like a psychologist or professional counselor, acknowledging both the transactional and emotional aspects that require attention. Empathy allows us to influence people in their toughest times. We have your back when the world is against you.
This doesn’t always mean that advisory firms like ours are welcome outright. Managers don’t always know what to expect—are we there to take their jobs? Sometimes it takes time and patience, feeding our points of view and eventually building credibility.
Once they let us in, they discover that vulnerability is not a weakness and they need to stop beating themselves up. We work to empower those who feel like imposters, helping them realize that even if they were the direct cause of the business’s failure and 100% of the blame rests on their shoulders—which is never the case because most organizations are too complex for the responsibility to fall on one person—“Shoulda, woulda, coulda,” doesn’t matter because it doesn’t change anything. You are where you are today and you can make the tough decisions and change the outcome.
One thing I painfully realized earlier in my career is that you can’t push people; you have to lead them. In my first position out of college, I was inundated with what it meant for companies to go through stress. I bluntly told an executive why his business was failing and what he should do. Later, his boss called mine wondering how a junior-level employee could say such things. I was frustrated because I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t listen. I’ll never forget what my boss told me: “Sometimes people have to feel the pain of failure before they listen.”
You can’t bully people in restructuring. You can simply point out different views or suggest how you would make decisions in their shoes. By doing this over and over, hopefully, eventually, they see the situation as it is. In the end, it’s their decision to make. We just set up the guardrails and reinforce the positives to help steer them away from fears and toward realizing that they really do know what they’re doing. It’s critical to reinforce the process of decision-making and understand that it’s a psychological process so it’s usually a marathon rather than a sprint. But, in the end, we hope to empower that person at the helm and remind them that they made it to where they are today because they’re smart and capable. By regaining confidence, they can make the decisions necessary to lead the company into tomorrow.