Plays Well With Others – Strong Leadership During Weak Budgets


 Many pundits are predicting that as the US emerges from its worst economic contraction since the Great Depression, business will bounce back with minimal new hires.  One of the primary ways that businesses grow their productivity without hiring more employees is to use information technology to automate processes that used to be done by real people.  But if the economy is still weak and the organization isn’t growing, that means life actually gets harder for those of us in IT because we’re being asked to deliver great returns to the company without allowing us to hire more people to get the job done.  In other situations, when the organization has been especially hard hit and must cut costs across the board, even critical IT teams have to let people go.  What’s a manager to do when misery like this abounds?

I’ve experienced three recessions during my career and I’ve learned a few lessons about team leadership when layoffs and job losses are making daily headlines.  Here are a handful of pointers that can help keep your team on task and keep the morale strong:

Be as informative as you can as often as you can. It’s simple, but true – honesty pays.  Talk to your team frequently and in-person.  If it’s a distributed team, get on the phone or a video conference to make communication as expedient as possible and to avoid misunderstandings that so frequently come up with email.  Tell your team about the good stuff happening in the company and how executive management is steering the boat down the rapids.  Emphasize what’s positive in the company’s future and how the company’s future prosperity is dependent on the teams’ ability to stay focused and get their jobs done effectively.  Use the difficult times as an opportunity to praise their hard work and perseverance.  And if things look really grim (as in, layoffs will soon be hitting your team), give individual advice to team members to find ways to “weather the coming storm”.  Failing to share information frequently will result in a lot of gossip which, in turn, leaves everyone on pins and needles.

Focus on core competencies. If you’re on a development team, make sure all of the projects you are leading have strong ROI.  Handoff or de-prioritize those projects with a vague value proposition.  Make sure your best people are working on the projects that are most strategic to the company.  That way, you’ve protected them from possible layoffs if the company has to cut projects across all teams.  If you lead an infrastructure team that doesn’t work from a well-documented project plan or have strong project milestones, spend a little extra time tracking staff activities and tying back team activities to the processes that keep the company up and running.  If possible, point out areas where consolidation can save the company additional dollars.

Demonstrate fairness and consistency. Nothing demoralizes a team as much as seeing the rank-and-file suffer while managers and their favorites continue to ride high.  If furloughs are announced, relay the news to your team by telling that you’ll be taking every Friday off during the furlough period.  If the team has to work extra hours, don’t go on vacation.  If you have to make some ugly decisions, such as cutting projects or releasing some consultants, publish your objects for the decision so that the team can see that the decision was made objectively and based on clear priorities rather than a hidden or highly subjective agenda.  In addition, it’s important to stay consistent in your interpersonal behavior.  Sometimes tough times can raise our blood pressure considerably.  But it’s very important to control your temper and keep your frustrations in check.  But also don’t act artificially happy or devil-may-care if you’re a normally even-keeled person.  Your inconsistent behavior will strongly demoralize the team and leave them guessing about what you’re not telling them.

Huddle up more often than you did in good times.  Teams that pull evenly together during lean times build a strong sense of camaraderie.  If the company has cut the training budget, schedule a combination team potluck and lunch-n-learn conducted by someone on the team or together while attending a webcast, like one of the 24 Hours of PASS sessions.  Schedule some free training from a group like the ToastMasters to add to everyone’s soft skills.  Take the opportunity during a lunch-n-learn to remind the team how important they are and that, even though the company has cut back on training, getting training for them is still important to you. If the company has pinched pennies by cutting the free coffee, ask each person in the team to cover it for one month.  Start off a week by bringing in donuts for your weekly team meetings and then ask for volunteers for the coming weeks. Meet for beers on a Friday after work or get together for coffee before coming in once during the week.

When possible, allow consensus-driven decision making. If your team is able to brainstorm over a really tough issue, they are often better able to stomach the outcome than if the decision rolled down from Mount Olympus.  If executive management demands a lot more work from the team without adding staff, telecommuting might provide a way for the team to do more work without more dissatisfaction. If you have to cut costs, open the discussion up to the team to find ways to save dollars, for example:

  • Examining the use of all third party products for any that the team no longer uses and, thus, can save on the maintenance and license fees. In one case, one of my former teams was licensed for everyone to have a full CASE tool on their desktop, even though only two people on the team could effectively normalize a database.  Cutting back to two licenses saved the company over $40,000.
  • Conversely, sometimes a new tool can make your team much more productive and cost effective, particularly those that automate time consuming tasks for the team.
  • Many times, consolidating a variety of disparate small providers into a single larger provider can save lots of dollars by allowing greater negotiating leverage and by cutting costs associated with staff time from purchasing, accounts payable, etc.
  • Allowing everyone to pitch in on a temporary pay cut rather than cutting a team member.
  • Looking for jobs currently done by expensive consultants that can be taken in house.
  • Based on the mission of the team, brainstorm ways to save the company money through better technology or improved efficiencies.  Perhaps upgrading to the latest release of SQL Server now, while the upgrade costs are covered by the maintenance fees, will provide new features that breathe life into older hardware or provide less expensive but essential capabilities such as achieving the project’s high availability requirements using a less expensive approach like database mirroring instead of Windows Clustering.

Communicate upward as well as downward. Don’t forget that you’re likely to be the team’s main point of contact with upper management.  If you’re not well informed, then they definitely won’t be.  Take extra time to ensure you know the strategy and direction of upper management and how it impacts your team.  As technologists, for many of us, our first impulse is to huddle behind the monitor and type faster.  But you will frequently need to get out of your comfort zone and hunt down the latest information by directly interacting with your boss.  In addition, whenever you interact with your boss, be sure to tout the accomplishments of the team in a diplomatic and tactful way.  If you’re not relaying the successes of your team, who will?

I’m sure you’ve seen some effective techniques for leading a team during difficult times.  What were your favorite approaches?  And everyone always want to hear about disasters and worst practices.  So be sure to share those with me too!



  1. @greeleygeek says

    Great post Kevin!

    The only thing I would add is that tapping into social media outlets like Twitter at work can be very beneficial to training and development on a limited/no budget.

    Twitter has been a great resource for finding out about free e-books, SQL Saturday type events, and even winning books from vendors and bloggers.

    And I just can’t say enough about the awesomeness of the SQL community on twitter in particular (as you well know).

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.