leading through uncertainty small business owner guide to managing stress

How Business Leaders Can Combat Uncertainty, Stress, and Fear

Silhouette of a Man Sitting Near Black Tower Near Body of Water during Sunset

In the crucible of leadership, nothing squeezes a leader more than uncertainty. – Henry Maudslay

As of late, there has been much discussion about a business’ ability to adapt to a changing environment. Although adaptability is critical to success in the digital age, we have yet to discuss the more human side of adaptive stress. The myriad pressures, questions, and conundrums that accompany running a business – especially in the rapidly changing Information Age – are objectively stressful. There is immense pressure to become more “agile,” and know exactly what that will look like.

The path is not always immediately clear. As a leader, you must make the judgment calls, and occasionally, the leaps of faith, necessary to steer your company toward the future. There is an abundance of literature singing the praises of meditation and mindfulness as a means of thwarting stress, but here we endeavor to look at stress management through a different lens – dealing with the obstacles head on, at a practical level.

When you have historically been successful using one particular method or model, you may become reluctant to explore or even conceive of a different model. Bear in mind, it’s dangerous to become a slave to your own winning recipe, no matter the success it’s reaped for you so far. You are, however, far more likely to cling to it when the going gets tough, and you have to fight that reflex.

But here’s the thing:

THE SINGLE BEST WAY TO COMBAT THE STRESS OF UNCERTAINTY IS TO STUDY THE ACTIONS OTHER BUSINESS LEADERS TOOK UNDER SIMILAR CIRCUMSTANCES.

 

This way, when you confront a business conundrum or the market is vigorously shaken up, you will have an immediate reference guide. This can be the most effective form of stress management in business, providing a much-needed framework, and showing you that no matter what you’re confronting, it has successfully been dealt with in the past. Business obstacles otherwise come with no guidebook. 

ForbesBooks authors J. Eduardo and Erica W. Campos – veteran business advisors and Microsoft alum – write in their debut, From Problem Solving to Solution Design, that “the most effective way to navigate [business] challenges is to leverage the pitfalls, successes, and beaten paths of others.”

Which others, exactly? To serve as a case study of this very principle, we will look to the Corning Company, which was put under enormous adaptive stress at the turn of the century, and see how they responded.

j eduardo and erica campos
J. Eduardo and Erica W. Campos, authors of From Problem Solving to Solution Design

How One Company Beat Uncertainty and Stress

Corning, a 150-year-old company that made its name in glass cookware and television tubes, now manufactures fibre optics and flat-panel displays and has become “the information revolution’s prime contractor.” Its CEO at the time, John Loose, said: “It is so easy for a company that has been so successful for so long to become a prisoner of processes of the past. We needed to accept ideas from outside—we acquired $10 billion of companies in the previous five years. But the whole transition has been accomplished by execs who have mainly worked in the Corning Company. Transformation is not a project—it is a mindset.”

As time pressed on, there was less and less money to be made in glass cookware and television tubes. The modern marketplace was not quite as hospitable to Corning and their core business offering. However, despite the uncertainty wrought by an aggressively changing marketplace, Corning was able to take their expertise in manufacturing glassware, and leverage it in a brand new context: manufacturing fibre optics and flat-panel displays.

A company that was historically popular with the housewife set, selling cookware, tableware, and pyrex, was able to adapt and recalibrate its area of expertise to meet the emerging needs of the market. As one of the world’s largest glassmakers, they are now Apple Inc.’s number one supplier. This is adaptive innovation at its finest: taking the stress, fear, and uncertainty of a rapidly changing marketplace and spinning it into pure opportunity.

Notice how Loose espouses the importance of transformation and not being a prisoner of the processes of the past. These lessons in environmental stress and adaptation are abundant when you study the actions of other business leaders during their own bouts of uncertainty.

Leading Through Uncertainty, By Honing Adaptability

Think outside of the boxWhen Britain broke with the European Union, there was no playbook telling them how to effectively steer their country in the wake of that political rupture. The Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants had this advice to offer Britain when it came to leading through uncertainty: “The current climate will require leaders who can lead through ambiguity; Ensure your executive team is properly coached in adaptable leadership and able to respond and change directions quickly based on market conditions.” People crave certainty, and for this reason they will fiercely cling to what they know, defaulting to “old ways” in times of duress – at the expense of creativity and finding alternate methods to achieve results. Perhaps the greatest defense to stress for business leaders is to pour themselves into creative thinking, and into the study of their predecessors and competitors, then synthesize the most valuable insights and methods to engineer a solution.

Stress balls and incense are not ineffectual, but you’ll see more tangible results when you arm yourself with a concrete method that pushes aggressive learning and historical study as your first line of defense to stress.

It comes down to this: when you get scared, ‘look around’ and ‘look back.’ Everyone else is, and was, also scared. There is inherent stress to running a business. Thankfully, no two people will approach a given problem the exact same way, and there are rich insights to be gleaned from that wealth of different approaches. You must humbly acknowledge that you always have something to learn from your peers and your predecessors. When in doubt, and when overcome with stress, study them.  

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