How to find good news in bad news

“A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt (and likely many others)

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“The real glory is being knocked to your knees, and then coming back. That’s real glory. That’s the essence of it.” — Vince Lombardi

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Early in my career, I found that I was spending too much time solving a recurring problem within our product portfolio. With much frustration, and without much thought, I complained to a colleague. My colleague was a well-reasoned gent, perhaps 5 years from retiring. He thought for a moment before offering a soft smile, and a wise observation. He replied, “You need to recognize why you were hired. You were hired to solve problems. We’re all hired to solve problems. Without problems, most of us would have no job…”

His advice annoyed me for a few moments. But as I considered his words, I came to realize that he was indeed correct.

His advice was right then, and it remains relevant today.

The concept of “bad news” can be similar.

What is bad news? When viewed in a larger context, bad news can be an opportunity to stand out by solving problems. While not always the case, it’s also true that it is not never the case. You have to be open, and look to find opportunity. And, you must look carefully, as some problems can prove lethal.

Bad news is a deviation from expectations. The expectations could have begun from status quo — no change was expected. Expectations could have begun with optimism — a positive change was expected. Or, expectations could have begun with pessimism, only to be proven wrong by a reality that is far worse.

The facts are the facts. How we deal with those facts matters. Sometimes it matters by a little. Often, it matters by a lot.

Another firm for whom I worked (different company) had gone public weeks before I joined. I owned responsibility for a field office in which I worked. This office had been a poor performer. Our morale, and almost every key performance ranking placed us in the bottom quartile. It was my responsibility to return performance to growth and profitability.

When our company announced their first quarterly results as a public company, they missed. It was not a narrow miss. Investors ravaged the stock. Many members of my team were despondent, afraid for the security of their jobs. Afraid for the value of their investments. Uncertain about their new leader, and how he (me) would respond.

We received bad news. Very bad news. I had a choice in how I could respond. First, I needed a few facts.

I listened to the earnings call, and quickly learned of the reason for the miss. While the reason was not easy to excuse, it was easy to explain.

I assembled my entire team. I gave them with a crash course into how Wall Street worked, and why our company stock fell in value. We discussed the matter for 3 hours. They learned that the company was embarrassed by a small, but important mistake. The embarrassment, and the drop in stock value, were temporary.

Everyone returned to their work, now aware, undeterred and unafraid. They now had the knowledge that if we, and our colleagues all did our jobs well, the stock price would be restored. My educational tour also included key clients and partners. It was important for them understand as well, and have sound reasons to remain with us.

We crushed the following quarter. The stock price rocketed past previous levels to post a strong gain. Our team morale improved dramatically as well.

While the company stock price recovered, we had more work to do. There were additional “bad news” items that surfaced in our office. Many of them. I called my search for these bad news items “diaper patrol.” There were many unresolved problems that, as with a dirty diaper, do not get more pleasant with time. But our team and I learned together, worked together and learned how to trust and communicate together. It paid off. Soon, our office rankings improved. By a lot. Our work resulted in performance that was in the top quartile for every key metric.

While not easy, the confidence and competence gained from finding — and making — good news from bad news is rewarding, and memorable.

The ability to find good news in bad news applies to our business lives. It also applies to every aspect of our personal lives.

The singular most important element is this: learn from it. If you didn’t learn from it (not just experiencing bad news, but getting to and thinking through the lesson), you will likely repeat it, or something similar to it.

Turning the bad news of performing poorly on a test into devoted study that leads to mastering a subject. Responding to a disappointing medical test result by changing how you eat and exercise, and losing weight and feeling more energetic. Using the stinging loss to a (football, tennis, golf, debate, poker, etc) rival to improve your practice techniques, and become the player that dominates.

Bad news becomes history. How you respond to it dictates your future.

Tips for dealing with bad news

It’s not always safe to “run into the fire” of problems.

You’re wise to first understand the full breadth of problem(s) you’re trying to solve. Determine if a solution is even possible. Begin your seek and discover mission by building a list of knowns — tangible and testable facts. Document the unknowns, and avoid using unproven beliefs and hunches. Name a team and develop processes to turn unknowns into knowns, and risk rank the gaps until they can be known. As in carpentry, measure twice before you cut.

Get to know the capabilities of your team. Avoid placing them into circumstances with undue risk which they cannot successfully manage through. Educate and overcommunicate. Celebrate wins, and learn from setbacks with tools like After Action Reviews.

Everyone wants to be on a winning team. You’ll find enduring satisfaction when you can help others to get there, and enjoy the taste and toil required to enjoy that sweet success.

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Richard Janezic leads Ascenceo, and brings 30 years of award-winning business experience to help founders, executives, investors, and boards of growth stage companies enjoy greater results, financial strength, market share and valuation. Rick also comments on Medium,  Google,  Twitter, and Instagram.