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How to thrive in uncertainty and change

So 2016 has been a pretty solid year for Chicago economically. A lot of new jobs are being created, and interest rates remain low. If you’ve tried to hire this year, you likely had a hard time finding the right candidates.

But what do we see coming in 2017? How will the change in administrations, historically low interest rates, and global trade pressures affect the economy—and your business?

Honestly, I don’t have confidence in anyone’s predictions for the year we have in front of us—but I do know that it’s going to look nothing like 2016! We have a President Elect who was voted in to “shake things up”(?); we have a cooperative congress and global trading partners who are pushing for more opportunity. In a world that’s rapidly changing how do we lead our businesses, what kind of planning can we do when the future is uncertain?

First, some context about all this change: for most small business owners it doesn’t matter all that much.

Most small business owners don’t have thousands of customers; we have hundreds (or even tens) of customers. What matters is how their businesses are affected by these changes. If we are concerned that our clients’ businesses might face headwinds, well, we should look for some clients who might not see those kind of challenges. One of the blessings of being small is that we can shift; we can navigate; we can change when we need to.

Now I’m not suggesting that we can go on as if nothing is happening. This uncertainty is going to have its impact—one way or another—on your team, your clients, and on your community. That means you need to up your leadership game to insure that your business stays on course.


Here are 4 characteristics I’ve noticed in leaders who navigate through change successfully:

1. Composure. Don’t panic!

Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hatred. Hatred leads to suffering. ~ Yoda

When forces outside our control start to mess with our businesses I’ve see leaders go one of two ways: they either get scared, or they get mad. Both are “threat responses”—different versions of fight-or-flight. Both of these reactions put our brains at a disadvantage. The fight-or-flight response is designed to keep us alive when we are in physical danger. It favors quick responses over deliberation and strategy. This might work when you are fleeing a forest fire, or facing a bear. But in a small business setting, the truth is that the fight-or-flight response makes us dumb.

Instead of panicking (and turning to anger or fear), sit down and make a plan. What do you see as some of the most likely scenarios for 2017? Look at each possibility and then identify what data might indicate that one of them is coming to pass. Then make a plan for the two or three most likely outcomes and watch your indicators. You can only execute one plan at a time; so execute based on your most likely outcome, but be prepared to switch as new data comes in.

Don’t panic. Make a plan.

2. FOCUS. Focus is your friend.

The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new. ~Dan Millman

Change and uncertainty is emotionally taxing. Watching scenarios and keeping plans up to date takes time and energy. This means that when you are facing uncertainty you can’t be spread too thin. You can’t have 10 new initiatives going. Pick one, two, or MAYBE three things to focus on. Narrowing your focus means that you are more likely to have the brain space stay on top if the data you are monitoring is telling you to make a change. You need margin to navigate uncertainty.

As you make your plans for 2017, think about how you can simplify: have fewer goals, start fewer things, make fewer changes. Then stay laser focused on executing on the few priorities that you have chosen.

3. Awareness. Keep learning and listening

In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. ~ Eric Hoffer

When we have uncertainty on the horizon we need more information, and from diverse sources. When we don’t know where the change is coming from, we may not see using the same information sources we’ve always turned to. We need to be curious, attuned, and open to different channels. The world is going to be different; the “gut instinct” we developed in a stable, high-growth situation, may not serve us well here. Be open minded; stay curious; and you will find more opportunities.

As I mentioned earlier, we need to stay tuned into our clients’ industry sources. What are they hearing? And for new industries we want to pursue—what are they hearing?

4. Vision. Keep an eye out for opportunity

“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger—but recognize the opportunity.” ~ John F. Kennedy

All of this work—staying calm, clearing the decks, learning and listening—is work we are doing so that when this time of change opens the door to new opportunities, we will be ready and able to *jump* on them. Because—make no mistake—there is opportunity in every change. The only question is will you see it? And if you do, will you be ready to grab it?

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