A few years back I was chatting with a very senior executive in a large and very successful firm. I asked him why he was so successful (a question I enjoy asking people). He responded in the slow drawl of his childhood Alabama home, “John, even turkeys fly in hurricanes.”
It took me a minute to figure out what he meant.
Everything flies in a hurricane and if you happen to spy a turkey flying by you, well, that’s to be expected. But on clear, windless day seeing a turkey flapping across the sky is a big deal.
The Message? How You Perform in the Tough Times is What Matters. Your Reputation is Made in Crises.
A few years ago, it was almost impossible not to make money on Wall Street. At the height of the dot.com bubble, just adding a .com to your company’s name increased its market value. But when times got tough in the worlds of finance or technology, we discovered who was good and who wasn’t. To paraphrase Warren Buffett's wry remark — when the tide goes out, you see who is wearing a bathing suit.
Think back to famous leaders — Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Churchill, Gandhi. All faced extraordinary challenges and handled them brilliantly. In business, Lou Gerstner resurrected a faltering IBM. Steve Jobs took over the failing company he had started and made it into the success story of the decade. Crises cemented these leaders’ reputations.
It’s true in every aspect of our lives. If you respect your partner, it’s because you’ve seen her or him handle tough moments — unrelenting stress, difficult decisions, poignant personal losses. It’s easy to love someone in the good times. Respect grows in tough times.
So What Does This Mean for You?
Don’t fear tough times. Embrace them. Don’t take jobs where the guys before you have done great. Instead, follow losers. Seek out positions that let you demonstrate your ability to turn things around. If you join a very successful project how do you prove how good you are?
Crises are a great time to show how good you are. Greg Brenneman, who helped turnaround Continental Airlines, Burger King and Quiznos, tells people that if they have the choice of working for a healthy company or a sick one, choose the sick one. “The sickest ones need the best doctors and it’s a lot easier to stand out in a company that needs help.”
Go to parts of the business that really matter — must-win accounts, challenging technical problems — where people will notice what you accomplish. In 1989, GE faced an enormous challenge — the company had to recall a million refrigerators because of poor design of the compressor. To this day, this recall was the largest one ever for appliances. One young manager was tasked with running the recall. He was only 33. He did a great job and quickly moved up. His name? Jeff Immelt, the current CEO of GE. Had it not been for the recall, and how he handled it, Immelt might never have been discovered.
Be ready for tough times. Become the “go-to” person when crises happen. Save the day.