Some years ago I was going through a low point in my personal life and I turned to a good friend for a supportive ear. As usual, he was generous with his time, but at the very end of our conversation he gave me something much greater than what I’d originally asked for - a new perspective. Trained as a physician, he explained that while we don’t like it very much, pain is incredibly useful. For example, physical pain is the body’s way of signaling to us that something is wrong and needs our attention.
I often think about this idea now when I work with clients or businesses experiencing pain, and regardless of the type or source of the pain, I find some universal truths apply to all painful situations.
Truth 1: Pain ultimately forces us to get honest. As much as I try to deny it, my body hurts more now following exercise than it did ten years ago. I can try to ignore it, but the gray in my hair and the creaks in my knees betray my denials. The same holds true in business. Pain gets worse over time if it goes ignored.
I worked with such a client for over a year in an attempt to correct a failing business model. For years the client enjoyed lucrative contracts with the federal government and their revenues, and subsequently cost structure, grew considerably during that time. When I began working with them, many of the contracts had either ended, been rebid to other organizations or were far less profitable as a result of a changing governmental landscape. We set to work right away to identify the truth of the organization’s situation and discovered some stark realities, which needed immediate action if the company was to survive.
My consulting partner and I provided several viable options to streamline unnecessary overheads and develop new recurring lines of revenue. Surprisingly however, the owner couldn’t emotionally let go of the past and wouldn’t acknowledge the shortening duration and reduction of existing revenue. Time ticked by and little changed. To the contrary – the company pursued low-probability and costly options in hopes to restore the company to its former glory rather than adjust costs to fit revenues now. The organization was on the clock to generate miracles and ultimately was forced to make the cuts originally recommended, but only after the pain became too great to ignore. It was too late.
Truth 2: Pain requires immediate attention…and action. Another client of mine suffered from declining revenues in the face of new competition in his market. When we analyzed the situation, it became clear one of his primary sales managers was not effective in producing adequate levels of leads or new contracts. We conducted several individual assessments with all of the sales team, and this individual scored significantly lower in sales aptitude and competitive drive than his peers. Combined with his poor sales outcomes I recommended a greater training or a change in this position – either moving this person to another role or replacing him completely. The client agreed. However another six months melted away before anything was discussed again and revenues continued to fall. The individual in question is a really great person and everyone liked him very much; even clients. The problem was no one was buying anything from him because he never asked for the sale.
Another client had the exact opposite problem. This client employed a prodigy of an IT manager who was able to do almost anything technically. In fact, he was so competent that he managed all IT projects for the organization personally. He became very ineffective at managing so many projects and refused to delegate any control to other capable staff in the department. Over time, deadlines slipped continuously, internal customers became frustrated and the head of the department was forced to make a change. It was difficult for her to balance the desire to have such a “whiz kid” on the team with the need to produce quality and timely solutions for the organization. In the end, she made the difficult, but correct decision, but only after the pain was too great to bear.
Truth 3: Pain is not necessary for change. My experience has shown me the duality in this great truth. On one hand, humans are capable of learning from the mistakes of others and avoiding pain altogether if we are willing to adopt these lessons. On the other hand, my experience has also shown me that most people are not so willing without the assistance of pain to motivate the learning. It can be said that growth moves at the speed of pain.
In his book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins suggests the best leaders (Level 5 Leaders) are those who possess several key characteristics, one of which is to “confront the brutal facts.” Collins goes on to suggest that confronting brutal facts contains three primary components:
Creating a climate where the truth is heard: As leaders in our organizations, one of the greatest gifts we can provide to all who work with us is to create a climate where the truth is heard. We do this by investigating problems or failures without assigning blame, asking lots of questions to support debate around the brutal facts, and resisting the urge to finesse or intimidate consenting views.
Getting the data to learn the truth: Good leaders also respect instincts that “something is wrong,” but require evidence to support these claims. This necessitates a command of sound business analytics and measurements to assess internal weaknesses, external threats, comparative statistics to past performance and projected market and business trends. In short, it demands rigorous and data-driven measurements of our business.
Embrace the Stockdale Paradox.In the words of Admiral James Stockdale,
“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
In his book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins writes about a conversation he had with Admiral James Stockdale regarding his coping strategy during his period in a Vietnamese POW camp.
“I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade."
When Collins asked who didn't make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied:
“Oh, that's easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, 'We're going to be out by Christmas.' And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they'd say, 'We're going to be out by Easter.' And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart."
Witnessing this philosophy of duality, Collins went on to describe it as the Stockdale Paradox.