Guest Column - May/June 2009

Hey! What About Us?

In the Downturn, Don't Forget Key Players in Your Success

By Pete Mitchell

The Achievers

In the tsunami of layoffs and staff cuts there may be an underlying current we haven't thought about—I call it "Corporate Jenny Craig." Companies are great at adding things—new products, new buildings and especially new employees. And when the top line is rising, everyone stays. There's no compelling reason to get rid of duplication of effort and/or non-productive portions of the workforce. The rising revenue stream shields us from those tough decisions.

But when things go bad—and especially when they go bad quickly—draconian decisions are often made. The top line no longer protects us. This is happening right now, and it's forcing senior managers to take a hard look at who does what in their companies and "prune" the rosters of those that are not "pulling their weight."

So who's left after all the cutting? The achievers. Outstanding employees who have demonstrated value to the organization. After cutting 10 percent of the workforce, we're left with 90 percent that are motivated to keep their jobs (even as they walk numbly through empty floors where there used to be people).

Recognizing, and especially incentivizing, these achievers is Job 1 for all managers. Now is the time to create and execute programs to bring the best out of these high-value employees, and to reward them for their accomplishments. Now is not the time to take the position that "well, you have a job. That's incentive enough." That's a short-sighted outlook that will certainly come back to haunt you in the end. Why? I'm glad you asked.

From a 'Buyer's' Market to a 'Seller's' Market

When the economy turns (and it will turn despite all the gloom and doom), those high-value employees will have increased opportunities to change jobs. If they perceive that their current company doesn't serve their needs, they may leave.

This "brain drain," coupled with the ongoing exodus of baby boomers from the workplace, may cripple organizations that do not properly recognize the achievers. Companies that place a high value on keeping achievers will find themselves better positioned to "ride the wave." Those that don't will see key assets leaving them at the worst possible time.

The time to consider how to motivate and reward achievers is now, not after the turn happens. Employees that have been through the shock and awe of cutbacks want to turn their attention to more productive activities—like doing their jobs. Providing a "carrot" is much better than showing them the "stick" of further job cuts.