Managing under pressure – Part 2: Communicate effectively

As an interim manager, I’m an extreme manager. I have very limited time to initiate a successful turnaround in companies, while operating with limited insight and in a tense atmosphere. In these situations, I benefit from my experience as a rescue diver. Today I describe how I communicate clearly and effectively.

You don’t dive alone. The team is key. I start interim assignments alone, but I only achieve change in a team. Communication is also key. In these situations, I benefit from crucial communication skills I have learned while diving in a team.


Rule 1: Focus on the essentials.

It is impossible to speak under water, let alone to discuss. You need an eye for the essentials. You need concise and clear codes that can be understood.

Every diver masters a set of about 15 signals for decisive, even critical, situations. These are, for example, breathing and hearing problems, giving directions, ascent and descent decisions, but most importantly, the Out-Of-Breath-Give-Me-Air emergency signals.

An experienced manager communicates in a similarly precise and concise manner when under pressure. A clear language for the essentials, which is understood by all, is crucial for success in interim assignments. But what are the essentials? The answers to the following three questions have proven essential in all my assignments:

  • What is the core problem?
  • How can I quantify this core problem?
  • Who are my key people to solve the problem?

The most important signal under water is: Stop! Under water, I need it to halt all activity in a difficult situation and make thinking possible (Stop! Think! Act!). During an interim assignment, I need a signal like this to clearly indicate to those around me, that calm must be restored. This is communicated not only through talking, but primarily through clear body language.


Rule 2: Communicate early

Communicate early, otherwise it quickly becomes too late under water. Air runs out, an animal attacks, the way back is blocked. This might seem more relaxed during an interim assignment, but it isn’t. The consequences often only become apparent later.

So why do we often only communicate cautiously and when it’s much too late? There are many reasons for this, from the fear of creating unpleasant situations with others to the reluctance of calling a spade a spade. All these considerations must be overcome.

Early and clear communication is also a question of respect. Saying how it really is, is the first step towards a solution, even if it unsettles or hurts. This is all the more true when these messages are directed against disrupters and saboteurs. Harmful behaviour and poor performance must be addressed openly when under pressure – especially in the interest of those who give their all to improving the situation or turning the company around.


Rule 3: Position yourself

To lead means often swimming ahead under water. Even in rescue operations it is more effective to swim in front of a panicked fellow diver and show him the way rather than giving a helping hand. If you give hands-on help, you run the risk of being dragged into the depths yourself and not achieving anything.

In a figurative sense, this also applies to the interim manager. Those in your environment must be able to see and feel where you stand and where you want to go. This should be done clearly and unambiguously so there is no need to deal with everything and everyone yourself.


Rule 4: Stay close and in contact!

Under water: Stay close and in contact! This is important because under water you can’t see far – and contact creates security and clarity. This also applies to interim assignments. Nothing can replace a personal conversation – not only with key individuals, but also with other people involved and affected.

A good interim manager knows: I can only win if my employee wins. He or she must want to work with me, I must want to work with him or her. We have to be sure of each other. The central moral value is trust. And this comes from closeness and contact.


Insight for extreme managers

Under pressure and with time limits, divers and managers must communicate clearly and concisely, seek and maintain contact, and take an unambiguous position. If you fail to do so, you risk human lives under water. In a company, she or he endangers success.

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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