Guest Post

Lessons Learned from the “Best of Times”

by Frank Troppe

How does a team avoid succumbing to panic, fear or discouragement?

I recently was asked for an example from my career where I worked on a team facing big challenges. I didn't have to go too far back in time — I'm lucky to be part of that kind of team right now. "Lucky" because uncertainty is giving us the opportunity to redefine our business and outmaneuver our competitors.

In mid-2009 I was named President of a construction staffing company. I'd never held the position of President before and was excited to get started and deliver for the business. The first weeks of the assignment involved meeting customers, getting used to new reports and deadlines, meeting the team, learning about the business from a new perspective and leading without falling behind.

One unique challenge: our company services industries (including construction, energy and heavy industry), which are currently experiencing their worst slowdown in 70 years. Adapting to this slowdown in a traditionally growth-oriented business raised questions, both personal and professional, about how I was going to do my job. Despite the economic challenges, here's what's made the last four months a positive experience.

1. We're balancing experience with innovation.

Our team has long-term relationships among themselves and with customers. This collective experience is a strength we draw upon to reduce anxiety. When you revisit core principles, and listen to people who have been with the company more than 15 years talk about overcoming prior challenges, it puts today’s situation in perspective.

At the same time that we've renewed our commitment to core principles, the topsy-turvy financing of construction and heavy industry projects has forced us and our customers to look beyond "just experience" and try to imagine new ways of working together. We recently introduced a brand new position ("National Service Director") to focus on both our customers' and our workers' experiences. I don't know if we would have made that centralized commitment in the go-go days of just a few years ago.

2. We're learning more about the root causes of success and failure.

Instead of giving the monthly P&L the final say on what's working, we're digging deeper into the true drivers behind the business. Where are pockets of revenue growth coming from? What expenditures do our customers value and how is that changing?

By adapting our workforce size and shape to address the changes in customer usage, we feel like we're positioning ourselves as a better long-term resource. The true test: when we explain our changes to customers, they get it.

3. We're looking at today as "the best of times."

Some of the positives of 2009 are the questions it forces us to answer: is it easier to change the status quo when times are booming or volatile? Is it easier to find fixable problems in good times or bad? Bill Gates has said, "Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning." I think this observation could be extended to, "The toughest times in your business are when you learn the most."

We're looking at 2009 and 2010 as an opportunity. What if we get this right? What if we make good decisions when others are in panic mode? What if we become even better business people? We like the upside we see in this market.

4. We're doing something.

Once the gears of attitude, analysis and innovation are engaged, hit the gas. Do something. I feel better when we're busy and so does my team. But the upfront commitment to working smart means we're running more than a "busyness."

Good luck to you and yours.

Frank Troppe is the President of CLP Resources, Inc., (TBI:NYSE) a leading provider of skilled tradespeople to renewable energy, construction and heavy industry.

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