December 30, 2011
2008 is now but a memory. That fall was the start of the financial downturn and the capital plans at our customers collapsed in a matter of weeks. OST was doing a lot of business in the financial services space and no one needs to be reminded of what happened to that industry.
OST had a bad month in November of 2008.
Dan, Meredith and I were thinking about how to communicate to the OST employees. Many of our team had worked for companies had experienced downturns in the past. And each of the three of us had personally experienced the emotions that occur when corporations downsize.
We have a culture of loyalty at OST and the three of us believed that each employee was valuable and important. We also believed that every one of them had to be at the top of their game and individually successful in order for us to get through the downturn. Finally, we knew that if we kept the team intact and we persevered, we would be extraordinarily positioned for growth when the recovery began.
But how to avoid the angst that naturally occurs when there is uncertainty and fear of the future.
We decided to do two things: Share good news and be completely transparent.
The good news was easy. The OST staff has always been capable of great work performed every day. What is extraordinary in most companies is typical here. So Dan started the Fresh Air weekly emails with positive notes and good news to counterbalance the external daily message of woe. He focused on the economic and sales successes, but also the hidden ways that people served each other at OST. And these emails had the tagline, “OST has decided not to participate in the recession.”
Complete transparency was a little tougher. We observed that in most cases the loss of productivity in a company during a downturn was due to inconsistency in communication and uncertainty in the future. We made the hard decision to keep the team intact, not downsize, but communicate our financial objectives with complete transparency. Dan declared that if we stayed above a given line in business performance, everyone was safe. And, we published our financials monthly with the running total and target so that everyone could see where we were at. It was not an obvious solution to the struggle, but it enabled everyone to know what the goal was, take concrete action and exert the effort to make us successful. And despite the economic downturn we had a great year and didn’t have layoffs.
And when Harvard Business Review published a special issue in 2009 on how to weather the recession, there was a series of articles in the magazine and on the online blog about the value of transparency as a thoughtful strategy. It confirmed that what we were doing was not just intuitively correct, but was also backed up by some of the brightest minds in business.
These characteristics are part of tapestry of OST. Share the good news and success with enthusiasm and be transparent about our struggles and objectives. Openness has a remarkable ability to dispel the uncertainty which leads to an emotional burden which kills productivity.
There is a great local company that laid off a large number of people in IT during the downturn. Management said that it was the final cut, and then a few months later there was another final cut that was followed by a third final cut six months later. There was an exodus from that organization beginning with their best and brightest employees concluding with a remarkable loss of vision and capabilities from the IT staff. A lack of transparency and honest communication can be a deathblow during difficult times.
And that’s why we believe in transparency. It’s the right thing to do and it’s the OST way.