Bad times a good teacher?

People continue to be fascinated by how anyone can manage in the economic downturn. I used to see this as ‘topic of the day’ – faddish and something we all would work through as ‘normal business.’ Not one, but two former bosses used to say, ‘in business there’s no such thing as bad news or good news – just news.’ We have to expect bumps in the road and some will be big ones. Anyone who operates without any preparation for that is courting trouble.

But it’s been pointed out to me in a recent consulting assignment that some people of my, ahem, advanced age are just lucky to have been ‘lucky’ to have been through tough times before. We can take it as business as usual to a degree while younger managers are genuinely shocked and more financially hurt (so this young exec insisted), especially if they`re young enough to have avoided tight times either having come of age since 1991 or having missed being hit in that somewhat milder climate.

Apparently even a lot of my age group missed those earlier setbacks because audiences of all ages continue to be flummoxed by today`s crunch and thatVeritySeries0911 continues despite possibly premature rumors of an upturn. My friends at Verity International once again assembled an interesting panel of experts (recording is here) to comment – Citibank being one that certainly got caught more than some, and Ford being one that was far more prepared than many. Yet no one is untouched. Add to the panel a devil`s advocate talk show host who claims we should all get off our duffs and make hay while the rest are lagging and a European consulting executive who`s seen a wider perspective and you have a competent mix… one might believe. Or do you have just a bunch of individual views from where each of them sits. Is there a common thread?

The fact is that downturns always benefit someone. Sometimes it’s the lucky – people who happen to have just sold major assets before the crash and have cash to buy up lagging operations that will help them boost their business when thing improve. Sometimes it’s the sensible – people who have watched their budgets all along and don’t have to lay off masses of people. There’s no doubt that 15 years of rising markets encourages people to take risks they shouldn’t. It’s understandable that in good times many fear being left behind if they don’t take those risks… but we all need to keep an eye out for bad weather and what we can offload when ship starts to sink.

Of course the talk show host was in his glory since bad news makes for good media interest and lambasting ‘laziness’ is easy when everyone’s already down in the dumps. Are North Americans lazy compared to others? Not if you note the ever-increasing stress levels and work hours we put in. But perhaps we’re not putting them in the right places as the world changes and we no longer rule on technology and scientific advances as we once did.

Are we letting our kids get lazy? Maybe, but again, as soon as they hit their 20s they mostly develop lots of reasons to work hard. Certainly we’ve encouraged a sense of entitlement. The same young exec who berated me for being a fat-cat boomer with money socked away to burn noted that young guys like him (about 25) have reason to be afraid they might lose the house, the two fancy cars, the cottage, the boat, the clubs and all that other ‘must-have’ stuff they have a right to go after (on credit). Apparently the banks, in selling everyone on credit only too successfully, drank that kool-aid themselves and have taken their customers down with them.

Unfortunately I know all too many boomers who are caught in the same mess and are finding it difficult to dig out. But having said that I also have acquaintances who have faced and overcome bankruptcies or near-bankruptcies in the past and know that belt-tightening, while not fun, does work. My heart goes out to those stuck right now, but it’s hard to know who’s on a right or wrong track. Major layoffs demoralize staff and hurt future retention and results, but failing to lay off can drag down results, share prices, and pension investments. Finding a balance and working hard is the inevitable result either way. Perhaps that’s something we need bad times to teach periodically as so many don’t seem to learn any other way. It’s the psychology of infallibility for sure that creates such cataclysmic cycles. Can we learn to smooth out our human nature and stay balanced better in future over the long haul? It was an interesting question that none of the panelists quite addressed directly.