In my discussions with bank managers over the past year, almost all have asked me to be sure to include "dealing with change" when addressing their teams. When a bank president asked me recently if I would talk about the changes going on in our industry in my presentation, I joked, "Only in the first 20 to 30 slides."
And yet, when speaking of current changes and challenges, I find myself often referencing the last nonbanker boss I had some 17 years ago. Don was the director of finance at a multiuniversity marine research consortium.
I doubt he would have imagined that I'd be sharing some of his philosophies with banker groups almost two decades later. But lately, some of his practices have made for rather relevant analogies.
One of my favorites doesn't involve business. One of Don's hobbies was flying the two-seater, single-engine prop plane he built himself. He explained that when taking off, a good pilot is also planning a crash landing. As soon as the wheels of Don's plane left the runway, he would begin immediately surveying the surrounding area for a place to put the plane down if the engine failed.
Until you reach a certain altitude, it's impossible to turn a plane around and return to the runway. When you need to make a possible life-or-death decision in about five seconds, you don't have time for pondering your options. You follow your plan. Sure, you may make very small "tweaks" to it, but you're either ready for "surprises" or you're not.
He had the same mind-set in business. Each year, we would receive our agency's budget from the state legislature. It was always announced with great certainty by whichever PhD was running the consortium at the time. And Don always chuckled, knowing there was no way in the world the initial budget would stand.
Folks who had rigidly planned their department's budgets often became catatonic when the budget ax(es) inevitably fell.
Don continually worked up Plan B, C, D, etc. budgets for the entire agency. He would game-plan budget cuts of various sizes throughout the year. Sometimes cuts came. Sometimes they didn't.
In one meeting after a budget cut was handed down, the consortium director proposed equal cuts to every department and support group.
Don explained to the director that "equal" cuts sound fair but are almost never the best decision for the health of an organization. Bloated departments were practically rewarded for inefficiencies, and folks running tight ships were disproportionately affected.
Almost without fail, and over the often loud objections of a dozen or so tenured researchers, Don's suggestions would be followed. His were the most meticulous, best-thought-out plans.
At first blush, some would think Don must have been a negative person, constantly planning for the worst. On the contrary, he was a cheerful guy. He also knew that being prepared for contingencies gave him peace of mind that he was as well equipped as possible to make wise decisions in stressful times.
I frequently remind banker groups today that times of turmoil can be scary but full of opportunity as well. And any manager who isn't game-planning reactions to challenges or opportunities that may arise is going to be caught flat-footed.
What would your plan be if a 10% head-count reduction became necessary? Planning to call meetings isn't a plan. How would you respond to losing your five most profitable customers? Thinking and talking about that usually reminds us to do everything possible to keep that scenario from actually occurring.
Conversely, what would be your first moves if a major rival cratered? Would you have a plan ready to act decisively?
Folks frequently speak of unforeseen events — both positive and negative. But being unforeseen doesn't mean that they were unimaginable. The organizations most ready for the "unforeseen" will have opportunities to capitalize where others falter.
During the most volatile banking environment in memory, how well thought out are your Plans B, C and beyond?
Your level of preparedness can be the difference between an unforeseen event being a setback or an opportunity.