Managing under pressure – Part 1: Assess the situation

As an interim manager, I’m an extreme manager. I work within a restricted time frame, often with limited insight and a tense atmosphere in order to turn a company around for the better. I benefit from my experience as a rescue diver. Today I describe how I assess situations in unfamiliar territory.

Under water, my vision is limited. The light of my diving lamp does not reach far, so I must probe the area for myself. This is no different in a company where I often work for short periods of time. Here, too, I have only very limited insight into how the company ticks, what connections exist between players and what the real problem is.

Just like under water, I have to sound out the situation in a new company and draw a picture from many individual perspectives- and all this in a race against time. As a diver and as a manager, I proceed in four steps.


Step 1 – Collecting information

The dive begins before the dive. I collect information about the area, flow conditions, flora and fauna. I talk to others who know the water. I clarify my scope under water and set myself boundaries. This is the only thing that prevents me from staying too long in the water, diving too deep or becoming overconfident.

All these steps are also necessary as an interim manager. I have to find out about my new location. Which employees and which processes are the focus of my assignment? What are the unalterable facts on which I can rely? For my purposes, which of these most accurately represent the situation in the company: the organisation chart, the annual report, the minutes of the last board meeting? What do I really want to achieve? What must I achieve or not achieve? I must not get side-tracked!

By collecting information, I learn important things about culture, structure, practices, but also politics at my new location. However, this is not yet a reliable picture of the situation. That only happens on site when I “dive in”.


Step 2 – Create a picture

In murky water, orientation is difficult. Where is up? Where is down? An anchor chain can be my guide. What is the terrain like? Often the only way to get a 360-degree impression is to secure yourself to the anchor chain with a rope and spread out in a star shape.

I don’t do this any differently in my interim assignments. My guideline is my assignment, from which I develop my field of application. The risk of getting lost and getting side-tracked is too great. My anchor is often also a person who has proven to be knowledgeable, trustworthy and cooperative. I can approach this person at any time to test assumptions, get additional information or discuss impressions. Important, and unfortunately too often forgotten or out of the stressed manager’s focus: the customer. Where is the customer’s place in the situation? Are the customers affected by the problem? Does the target solution generate value for them? Even when problems requiring solutions lie in the organization, its people and processes, a good turn-around must serve the customer.


Step 3 – Develop structures

When diving, the view of the situation underwater comes from combining preliminary information and individual perceptions. Fragments seen in the beam of my diving lamp are put together to form structures and patterns. The terrain is created in my head. Creating a picture of the situation at my location as an interim manager is no different.

Central elements of a company are the company rules and language, as well as the cooperation of employees. Does company communication beat around the bush? Are there rules and do they serve the customer? Is micro-politics practiced and denounced? These observations fit together and form a framework. Tools which help me map and describe these company patterns are two-dimensional language- maps, rule-maps and employee-maps that I designed and customised.

But there is still one important step to be taken.


Step 4 – Interpreting signals

Under the water, I interpret what I see, because not everything is what it seems. When I look for octopuses, empty sea urchin shells can be a more reliable clue than shadowy shapes scurrying across my beam of light.

Interpreting signals is also an art in interim management. Even in companies under pressure, the whole truth is not offered on a silver platter. You have to interpret what is said (“That doesn’t work here.” It can’t, it shouldn’t, it’s not allowed? ) You have to question the purpose of and the thoughts behind the rules. (“We always coordinate this.” Out of fear, because ordered, out of habit?). And you have to clarify information that may mean something other than what is explicitly stated (“Here you just have to be on good terms with the board”). Who do they mean? Who is on the board? What does this mean?).


Insight for extreme managers

Under pressure and with limited time, divers and managers alike, need to divide their breath and take a step-by-step look at the situation. This means interpreting signals, gathering information and insights and questioning everything you see and hear. For divers this is routine, for managers it should become routine.

Follow me on this excursion into murky waters and foggy conditions. Learn with me how to divide your breath and unleash power and effect.

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