Timothy R. Clark: Has the recession changed your company's DNA?

Published: Sunday, Aug. 26 2012 11:06 p.m. MDT

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When did your company first feel the hit of the recession? I was talking to a CEO this week, and he said it started for him all the way back in 2002. For most companies, the initial impact goes back to 2005 or 2006. Think about how long that is. Most recessions last a year or two. The Great Recession has buffeted organizations for at least five years and as many as 10.

The recovery is shallow and anemic, but at least we can move on, right? I wish it were that easy. The Great Recession did not come and go without consequence. It took its toll on organizations. It emptied the treasury and thinned the ranks. It brought thousands to the brink of extinction. It has created awesome pain.

For the organizations that survived, the problem is moving beyond survival. Those who study organizational culture tell us that to recast a company’s culture wholesale takes at least three to five years. The Great Recession lasted at least that long and that’s exactly what it has done — changed the DNA of organizations.

MIT’s Edgar Schein, the father of the study of corporate culture, explains that culture is “a pattern of basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valued and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”

The recession was a terrifying challenge of external adaptation. It changed our focus from growth to survival. It shifted our orientation from managing revenue and profits to managing costs. Breakeven became the goal. It thrust us into a mindset of austerity. We learned to retrench and do more with less. When you do that long enough, it changes your instincts. It changes your response patterns. Organizations become more centralized and directive because they have less margin for error.

We learned priceless lessons too — the will to survive, resourcefulness, creativity borne of necessity, the ability to motivate people without monetary rewards. The federal government notwithstanding, we learned the sorrows of reckless spending and morbid excess.

But there’s also a downside: The period effects of the Great Recession make it hard for an organization to spring to action, to exploit opportunity, to move with agility and speed. Many organizations disempowered their people by managing them at the level of task delegation with very little room to maneuver. All of this resocialized people.

Picture a battalion of infantry soldiers from World War I. They’ve spent a long, cold winter in bunkers, trenches and fox holes. The spring comes, the sun comes out and it’s finally time to advance. The soldiers can barely remember what it was like to advance because a culture of retrenchment has formed.

When I served a Mormon mission to Korea years ago, my world changed. The culture was different. The food was different. The language was different. The life I had known was upended. I adapted and had an amazing, life-altering experience. I learned to work from sun up to sun down. I learned to speak Korean and eat kimchi. I was more disciplined and compassionate, and I had a desire to serve and help people.

When I came home to resume my football career at BYU, I was not ready. I tipped the scales at 212 pounds, compared to the 265 I took to Korea. I still remember putting on two pairs of sweats for my interview with coach LaVell Edwards, so as not to appear too scrawny.

I had stamina, but had lost strength and speed. I had first-class survival skills and instincts, but not much agility. I was supposed to go out on the field and put my facemask on somebody’s numbers. All I wanted to do was shake his hand. A new chapter of life had begun and it was time to adapt and adjust again.

The grinding slog of the Great Recession has refined us. By its pestilence, we have learned to be wiser stewards. We have learned endurance and gratitude. I hope we can retain the lessons, discard the losses, swallow the fury and move forward with optimism.

Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. His newest book, "The Employee Engagement Mindset," has just been released from McGraw-Hill. Email: trclark@trclark.net

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