In 1999, few people had it better than Peter Dameris. He was chief executive officer of Metamor Worldwide, an information technology company that specialised in Y2K conversions, and business was booming.
In the final months of last century, the world raced to fix a strange glitch that meant computer code couldn’t recognise a four-digit year. The fear was this “millennium bug” would cause widespread chaos at the stroke of midnight on 31 December, 1999, and everything powered by modern technology from cubicle desktops to air traffic control systems could crash. All that work propelled Metamor to a value approaching nearly $2bn.
But Dameris also knew the moment the Y2K crisis ended, the company's main business would too. Metamor needed to figure out a way to survive. So, in the months preceding the year 2000, Dameris would break away from day-to-day operations of the company to strategise.
As Metamor worked on Y2K conversions, Dameris diversified. He sold contracts to maintain code and websites, for instance. It worked. In early 2000, with the company poised to grow even after Y2K, Dameris coordinated a sale of the firm to internet service provider PSINet for $1.9b.
Now, Dameris is in a similar situation. He’s the CEO of On Assignment, a fast-growing California-based, global staffing company. And while he’s managing the upswing and enjoying that success, Dameris knows better than most executives that good times don't always last.
“We like to plan for the future when times are good,” Dameris said. “You always have to be thinking about the next big thing.”
It’s like that for any manager trying to navigate an upswing. While it’s always better to make money than lose it, a budget increase can often present its own challenges.
“When you’re asked to cut your budget by 20%, you think very carefully about how to go about it,” said Alfons Sauquet, professor of people management and organisation at ESADE business school in Barcelona. “When asked to increase your budget, the inclination is often to do it quickly. But it should be done with great care.”
How to finesse the good times
The first step, before all that careful planning, Sauquet said, is to celebrate. If your business is on an upswing, throw a staff party, take your team out for drinks, or do something fun together, like bowling. In short, find a way to show the staff you appreciate them getting through the lean times.
Next, determine the best way to utilise the influx of funds to grow your part of the business. Maybe it’s expansion into a new market, product development, or simply adding staff.
Hiring new staff can be tricky, Sauquet said. Ensure the existing staff has a clear idea of your new direction before adding new people. If they don’t, you can bet the new hires won’t either.
“The old-timers in your office should get a new set of goals, and when the newcomers start, they should have a clear connection with the overall purpose of the company and a set of goals themselves,” Sauquet said.
Scheduling strategic thinking
So, how should you approach the process of planning? The answer is to quite literally schedule time to think, said David Reimer, CEO of Merryck & Co., which provides executive leadership development.
Busy managers rarely give themselves structured time to think, Reimer said. Most have back-to-back diary items scheduled most of each day, and the only time they seem to have to think is in the shower. “From line managers all the way up to CEOs, that’s the same,” Reimer said.
Instead, managers need to block out an hour per day with nothing on the schedule except strategic thought. For managers with glass walls, an open-style office or easily-accessible desk, get out of the office. Walk across town for that meeting instead of taking a car service, or just book an hour here and there to head to a coffee shop with nobody in tow.
“It does mean closing the door. It does mean shutting the lid on the laptop,” Reimer said. “You need to be thinking and [then] standing in front of a white board with a pen and sketching out the next month or the next year.”
For many managers, seeing an uptick begins to create a false sense that it’ll always be that way, Reimer said. So even while things are good, it’s time to start thinking about what happens if there’s another slump. “Celebrate your successes,” Reimer said, “but think about the fact that this is a relay race that never ends. You will have to hand off the baton eventually.”
Dameris' secret? He allocated some of his day-to-day functions to his COO so that he could schedule time to think and strategise about tomorrow.
Now, the quarterly meeting of his company’s board of directors lasts three days instead of two, with one full day dedicated to strategic thought.
It may seem odd to do all this planning at a time when business is so good. In fact, On Assignment expects to increase its revenue from $1.9b in 2014 to $3b by 2018. But the best time to plan for when things might change is during an upswing, Dameris said.
“I often say it’s not the number of decisions I make. It’s the quality of decisions I make,” he said.
It’s the same for any manager facing heady times: now is when strategic thinking is needed the most.
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