Oswald Letter

Dazed and Confused in an ‘Uncertain Economy’

I’m in the process of writing my Q1 report for our board of directors and I’m trying to come up with the appropriate adjective to describe the current economic environment and explain its impact on our business.

As I searched for the right adjective to describe the business climate we’re facing I first considered “challenging.” How often have we read or hear a sentence begin with “In these challenging economic times…”? And while I would agree that they are indeed challenging, I’m pretty sure it’s not the best word.

I next considered “difficult” as my adjective. Again, I would argue that “difficult” does aptly describe the current economic climate, but in my estimation it’s still not the best word to portray what we’re dealing with. It’s too blunted.

The next word that popped into my head as I wrote was “frightening,” but I didn’t like the reactive tone of the word. I thought that “frightening” would denote a lack of control that I’m not sure I want to portray.

Finally, I settled on “uncertain.” Not original by any means and certainly not an inspired choice, but I do think it’s accurate. Is anyone certain about what tomorrow will hold? I know I’m not.

Often in business there is a pretty predictable cause and effect. You do this and that will happen. I don’t feel that way any longer. Regardless of what we’re doing, I’m uncertain about the result that will occur. I’m also uncertain why it occurred. And when you don’t know what’s going to happen next and why it’s happening when it does, it produces a sense of not being in control like nothing I’ve experienced in my professional career.

Let’s face it, we executive types pride ourselves on knowing what to do next and being confident in predicting the results of our actions. It’s what we do every day. I don’t feel that way right now. I’m uncertain what results will occur from the actions we’re taking.

We had a pretty good first quarter. Revenue was pretty much on target and our bottom line is actually slightly ahead of plan. But instead of being able to celebrate the results, I feel it necessary to downplay them because I don’t know what tomorrow will hold. I’m uncertain. As quickly as we exceeded our projections we may find ourselves behind. Will sales slow in the second quarter? Will our customers embrace our new product offerings? Will the growing unemployment rate reduce the number of human resources executives who make up our customer base? Will companies continue to slash their information and training budgets?

The current economic environment is like none other in my professional life. How companies continue to react and adapt will have an impact on our business but all of this is happening in real time and it makes it extremely difficult to predict. That makes me uncertain about what to expect tomorrow. Not an inspiring leadership message, but it is an honest one. Instead of pretending that I have all the answers, I prefer to try to react as we get new information.

In fact, being uncertain may actually play to my favor. My uncertainty has caused me to watch our key business indicators more closely than ever. It’s critical that we review what we’re doing every day because the results of activities are less predictable than they have ever been. The challenge is to remain balanced. I don’t want to become too reactionary, but I also need to be ready to act when the data indicates that a change in direction in necessary.

Like I said, these are uncertain times. A change in management approach is necessary and it means admitting to oneself that you don’t have all the answers. The rules of the game have changed and we all need to be ready to adapt. It may be the key to survival.