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Top Places to Work | Roundtable

Crisis mode

Three area business leaders share insight on how to manage in a down economy

Jack Clancy (left), Deborah Ancona, and John Fish say planning is key to weathering a downturn. (Michelle McDonald / Globe Staff Photo) Jack Clancy (left), Deborah Ancona, and John Fish say planning is key to weathering a downturn.
By Robert Gavin
Globe staff / November 9, 2008
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It's during tough times that corporate leaders show what they're made of. For the Top Places to Work, we convened a panel to share views on managing companies and people when conditions are challenging. Globe 100 editor Michael Warshaw sat down with Jack Clancy, chief executive of Enterprise Bancorp of Lowell; John Fish, chief executive of Suffolk Construction Co. of Boston; and Deborah Ancona, director of the MIT Sloan Leadership Center, to get their takes.

Globe 100: I wanted to take your temperature on the government's efforts to help Wall Street, including the bailout.

Clancy: The thing I worry about is making sure it gets to Main Street. We need to do it to get rid of a cash crunch, not to just bail out lenders. If a subprime loan was made in neighborhoods in Boston, or Lowell, or Worcester, relief needs to trickle down.

Globe 100: Is credit tightening?

Clancy: For us, it's business as usual. Actually, we're doing more lending than in the last five to 10 years. We're finding that a lot of these lending conduits and insurance companies have pulled out of the market. If you're a bit of a contrarian, this is the best time to be making loans.

Globe 100: John, do you see business as usual?

Fish: Like Jack, we're somewhat contrarian. We have a philosophy we call going narrow and deep. When we go into a particular sector, we allocate appropriate resources and try to be the best. Historically, we've done better when things are more challenging.

Globe 100: Why?

Fish: We have a very unique culture, and we're focused on hiring the right people. We've prospered based on the quality of our human capital.

Globe 100: But what about actual capital? Are you feeling the credit crunch?

Fish: We built the business in an old-fashioned way. We've never borrowed any money. We don't access our lines of credit. As we've grown, we haven't compromised our culture.

Globe 100: So are you feeling any kind of slowdown?

Fish: The industry as a whole, absolutely. But because of strategic planning, we've been able to reposition our resources, narrow and deep, into some very important sectors. We have an operation in Florida. We always talk about following the money, and by following the money, it allowed us to see overbuilding in the residential sector. So we reallocated resources to educational, healthcare, and government sectors. Now we're positioned as builders of choice in those sectors.

Globe 100: Deborah, these are positive messages. Are these the messages leaders are giving their people now?

Ancona: In times of stress, people want to know what's going on, what's going to happen to us, and how are we going to get through this. So it's very important for leaders to be visible and communicate. They have to say, "This is what we know about a situation, this is what we don't know, and this is how we think it's going to affect us." What people want is a vision of what's going to happen when the dust settles.

Globe 100: How do you apply that philosophy of leadership?

Fish: Very simply. Communicating a sense of confidence. To us, it comes down to, keep it simple, stupid. Don't bite off more than you can chew. Take on some very specific markets. Align your expectations with a sense of reality, provide leadership, don't compromise your culture, and invest in the future.

Globe 100: Jack, do you put yourself into a different gear during tough times?

Clancy: This is the best time to galvanize your workforce and create positive morale. We're constantly communicating, yes, there's difficulty in the market, but here's why we're different, here's why we're doing well, and what a tremendous opportunity when competitors are retrenching. One of the biggest mistakes companies make is they don't position themselves for the up cycle.

Globe 100: Are there people who are better at leadership when times are hard?

Ancona: People who stay calm do better than people who do not. Telling people, "Yes, you can do it," and having confidence in yourself and your people is an incredibly important aspect of leadership.

Globe 100: Is this when CEOs really earn their pay?

Ancona: Yes. Part of what you want to do is fight the tendency to batten down the hatches and shrink inside. That's the opposite of what you want to do. You want to reach out to people you trust, to your advisers, your networks. The other thing during crises is speed. Being able to do the things you normally do, but at a faster pace, becomes really important.

Globe 100: Jack, you talked about the mechanisms for communicating to employees. It seems they become useful when things get tight.

Clancy: You need to reach out for help, because we all have blind spots. You have to create a network of support. Everybody's a leader. We hire somebody out of college and tell them leadership isn't about age. Leadership-building and culture-building come to the forefront in difficult times.

Globe 100: John, it seems you're agreeing.

Fish: We use the word, "passion." Passion has to ooze out of an organization, especially in challenging times. In our organization, it starts with training. To me, the more we can educate our people, the more we can train them, allow them to realize their potential, and feel they're part of a winning team, it becomes contagious.

Ancona: If I could add to that: What both of you are talking about is the notion that this is not the time for an omniscient, omnipotent leader. This is a time for a leader who is confident, who has strengths, but who also pulls other people into spreading that passion. That's a great model for how to cope.

Clancy: I call myself a Robin Hood of ideas. Most of our great ideas come from others.

Fish: Our vision is building relationships by exceeding expectations. If you're supposed to call somebody by 10, call them by 9. If you're supposed to do a report, make it a better quality report. If you think about having 1,100 people exceeding expectations on a daily basis, it's a pretty powerful dynamic there.

Clancy: Our dream is to be the last bank standing. I don't mean it in reference to the times we are in. But five generations from now, we want to be the last bank standing. That creates a mindset. You do everything for the long term. There's nothing worse than going into difficult economic times and retrenching. You're chopping yourself off at the knees.

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