Attempting to weather the storm during 2009

February 23, 2009
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The New Year is crashing down upon us like an arctic storm: Fear swirls around us and feelings of uncertainty seem to drive through our skin.

Though business reality can be an unforgiving taskmaster, the cruelty of business is that successful operations hinge on the human characteristics of people that work within them. Since this column is about “people matters,” what is it that matters to people as we look toward the future?

While the Business Journal allows me to write these articles from a personal perspective, many of my experiences are formed by the relationships built in supporting West Michigan business through my work at The Employers’ Association, a not-for-profit organization providing human resource solutions since 1939.

We have coached business owners who have never faced a reduction in force plan for unwanted layoffs, sharing their pain as they make tough decisions that will impact the lives of the employees who have become friends. We have helped organizations acknowledge, accept (and personalize) the disruption that reducing a workweek may have on employees already struggling to keep up with mounting expenses.

We have helped to develop early retirement plans for organizations facing prolonged work shortages, trying to provide the best possible exit for workers who may have invested more than half their lives into a company that now is struggling to survive. We have helped managers address performance issues within their work force rather than burying them under the guise of a layoff. 

Though we have shared in many difficult moments, helping West Michigan grow and diversify, we see hope with each dream a business owner realizes.

2009 seems to be portrayed by the media as a stormy sea painted on a darkened canvas on an overcast evening. Many news venues have counted us dead and buried. They say Michigan has lost its past glory, become becalmed upon a stagnant sea of global disarray. They are convinced that the distant light we see through the tunnel is a freight train running under a full head of steam toward an unavoidable financial disaster.

Personally, while ours is not a “pretty picture,” I do not feel that all is lost nor should all be abandoned. Rather, exhibiting controlled understanding and “bridled” enthusiasm while acknowledging the past, applying its lessons and moving steadfastly forward will lead us from the edge of the abyss.

Time is a continuum — what was once a beginning may someday be an end, and what was once an end may someday be a beginning. Several years ago, employers were struggling to find qualified candidates in a West Michigan employment market that boasted virtually full employment. Today, jobs go begging because available workers do not possess the qualifications to fill those jobs.

Employers once were able to pick and choose the customers they wanted to work with, often passing on contracts that might require much work for little profit, finding success in doing things the way they’d always been done. Today, we see companies quoting work “at cost” so they can remain in business, often working with customers that may have once been considered “high risk” or “too much trouble.” 

Companies did not have time to build infrastructure, to train and develop their managers, to design performance management systems that tie pay with performance because they were too busy doing the work of today to think about the dreams of tomorrow.

Today we are helping companies develop their management teams, identifying and building upon their strengths while recognizing and doing something about their weaknesses. We are developing compensation systems that will help to create both internal equity and external competitiveness within organizations as they build for the future.

Though times are changing, causing us to look at things differently than in the past, I do not accept the philosophy of coming loss and total devastation.

I believe Americans are resilient. We are innovative, creative and intuitive. We have never before been derailed when truly seeking to accomplish an objective, and we will not be stifled by even the most oppressive of economies today.

I recognize that the 2009 may be difficult for many, but our resolve to survive is deeply rooted within West Michigan values.

If only we could continually seek:

Wisdom — for yourself, for those you know, for those you do not yet know.

Happiness — for a world far too sad and fragmented.

Forgiveness — for all that may have been done in selfishness and the pain it caused.

Peace — that might create a bond of brotherhood never before realized.

Love — to fill the earth with power, overcoming even the strongest of prejudice.

Understanding — to see another’s perspective before discounting a differing view as being inconsequential.

Perhaps then we could learn to survive life's temporary setbacks. 

Stretch to accomplish all that you can during this year. When times become tough, exhibiting wisdom, happiness, forgiveness, peace, love and understanding will help you make as big an impact as you possibly can, in whatever you choose to say or do.

David J. Smith is president and CEO of The Employers’ Association, a not-for-profit provider of human resource solutions since 1939.

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