I had been with IP about two years and was working in a multiwall bag plant in Camden AR. My wife and I were both around 28 years old, and our son (around 2 at this time) had been born shortly after we moved there. My wife had not been feeling well for weeks and then months. The local doctor(s) had treated her for numerous things but nothing seemed to work. We finally went to Little Rock to see specialists and get a more expansive view of her condition. She was really sick by this time, and we had no real idea what it was nor what to do. To get right to the point, we soon found out that she had cancer. I still recall getting that news in the waiting room after they performed the biopsy.
The initial referral to an oncologist was even more disturbing. He suggested surgery to remove an organ, radiation treatments, and a list of other things to consider, but not much hope. We weren’t comfortable at all with this plan, nor did we have a peace about things at all. We pursued a second opinion with a different oncologist and got a very different plan of attack – aggressive chemo treatment and start getting better!. There were no promises of a timetable for complete healing, but there was a simple plan that experience indicated would lead to a favorable outcome.
There were additional tests to be performed, a somewhat lengthy stay in the hospital, and all the side effects that chemo treatments had back in those days. I recall working at the plant during the day, driving two hours to the hospital in the evenings, spending the night in the room, and driving back to work early the next morning. Just seeing progress and keeping the mindset of a desired favorable outcome was the focus. Yes, there were tough days and challenging obstacles, but that oncologist provided a plan with hope. There was no guarantee, but there was hope.
She did get better and was ultimately cleared of cancer. The process was tough, but the results were what we were hoping for.
As we come to the end of the year, many of you reading this note have had a tough year in many respects. Many of the people you lead have had a tough year. I bet there is no shortage of a need for hope in many people today. With our plants working a lot of overtime, experiencing machine issues, dealing with challenging customers, and working through frustrating safety issues, there is no doubt a high level of anxiety and discouragement right now.
Here’s what you can do as a leader to provide hope and help us get through these challenging times: (hey, this can be a personal message too)
1. Confront the facts honestly. Make an honest assessment of the situation and what has to happen to get to a better place. Don’t downplay the significance of the situation or sugarcoat the way out. Honest acceptance is the start. (OK, it’s cancer, now what do we do?)
2. Get back to basic focus areas. Narrow the focus and simplify everything you can. Everything can’t be a top priority or there is nothing at the top. Identify the few things that you must really focus on and be solid/great at. Other things will need to take a secondary role. By narrowing the focus and simplifying, you provide a manageable game plan for you and your team. (Just like that second oncologist provided us a simple plan. It wasn’t easy, but it was clear, concise, and could be easily understood.)
3. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. While we want to keep everyone focused on getting to a better place, you can’t promise a timeline. There are too many variable in play. Just make progress toward the goal and stay focused on that goal. A promise of a deadline or timetable missed does a lot of harm. (There was never a promise of a timeline for complete cure or normal life, but there was the focus on a cure.)
4. There will be setbacks and tough times along the way. Don’t let these challenges take away your focus of the goal at hand. Your role as the leader is to keep everyone moving toward the desire outcome, not focused on the setbacks along the way. Just make progress today. (Some days sure did not seem like progress, but there was the plan of just staying clearly focused on today and the goal.)
5. Recognize and communicate progress often. (I recall getting favorable news on various tests that things were improving with my wife. Sometimes these tests were only a part of the entire treatment evaluation, but good news, no matter how limited, provides momentum to fuel hope.) Leaders need to do the same. Just sharing positive news from time to time can pick a group up and propel them forward.
As I read back over the five things noted above, they have a very similar sound to Jim Collin’s key messages in his book Good to Great. I think he used different terminology, but from what I recall from the book, the basic message appears very similar.
Oh, by the way; some eleven years later we would have a baby girl join our family. Her name is Hope.