4 ways every leader can do more with less

“Congratulations James / Jane / Nicola (delete as applicable), the board has just signed off next year’s business plan. You have a 50% increase in your departmental budget and also have an additional three headcount to recruit to your team.”

Sound familiar? No? I thought not!

“James / Jane / Nicola, the board have been reviewing the business plan for next year and, despite a growth this year, we need to shave off some expenditure in your department. I’m afraid that we also don’t have the budget to replace the person who has just left. Oh, and by the way, the board have also asked to see an additional 20% revenue growth from your division next year.”

Sound familiar? Possibly more so than scenario one.

The reality of working life post economic crash of the late noughties is one of caution. Back in the early 2000s I was working for an oil company in the UK retail division. Times were good; the sports and social budget was large, corporate trips to Champions League matches and international cricket games were frequent, as were gifts of wine, extravagant nights out in London and team away days. As I joined a premium automotive manufacturer a few years later, the good times continued but then the crash happened and it all stopped (cue sad violin music). Not only were we unable to accept exciting gifts but suddenly the way we did business was scrutinised in a way not seen before.

“None of these measures are unreasonable!” I hear you cry, and I don’t disagree; after all we were in the midst of one of the worst recessions since the early 80s / 1929 / the ice age (depends who you listen to).

These measures are all to be expected in a time of recession but, perhaps unlike in previous ‘boom’ periods, as the economic situation has improved, the watchful eyes of the media, customers and regulators have not blinked…and rightly so. As business people we are here to serve our customers, not fritter their hard-earned (and spent on us) pounds away on trips to the world cup or meals in Mayfair! It goes further than this however, and it is clear that the modern business leader has to achieve far greater results for their shareholders and customers under ever tighter purse strings… so what is the secret? How is this possible and where is the line?

Increase transparency and create a sense of belonging

“Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die” – so goes Tennyson’s poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade. And the same could often be said for teams within business. But I tend to take a different approach when it comes to leading a team of people.

When going to war, generals can’t be discussing the options with their troops, but in the business environment we need to work smarter and not always harder. If resources are scarce and expectations are high then we have to get the decisions right and the results need to be as close to perfect as possible.

One modern school of thought is that the top down approach isn’t necessarily the best way of doing this. Involving the team in business planning and sharing the company’s goals with them is likely to pay dividends in many ways.

  • A shared vision and purpose engages the team through a sense of belonging and importance
  • An understanding of the ‘bigger picture’ can focus efforts in the right direction, rather than stumbling blindly towards individual ideas of success
  • Who knows…the team may have better ideas or different experiences to contribute to a sound and effective decision
  • A decision reached as a team unites and energises in a way no edict ever can

Consider the merits of team involvement when making your next significant business decision. Do you have all the answers or could it be that the team (that you hopefully trust) could add value and make the charge into battle more effective and efficient than the charge of the light brigade?

Prioritise and STICK to your objectives

We are all guilty of straying from the important work we should be doing and focusing on what we enjoy or what’s easy. Sometimes that is the right thing to do but, when working under tighter budgets, with limited resources and greater expectations, the best succeed with a singular focus. If it doesn’t contribute in some way to the ultimate goal of your team and the company then cross it off your list. Be ruthless with your time and efforts, be prepared to say no and challenge your team with their focus too.

Stick a whiteboard on the wall next to your desk and write up your goals. Write the phrase ‘What should I be doing?’ on it and list the three most important tasks you need to complete that day, week or month.

It’s easy to drift in the course of a busy working life, so set a dedicated ‘review’ time each week to reset your sights and keep on track.

Spend a penny

No, not like that! Whilst it may seem paradoxical to spend money when resources are tight, and many cautious managers may agree, a sensible approach to investing in your team’s well-being and morale can go a long way to maintaining and improving motivation and productivity.

This spend could focus on extrinsic motivators such as project-based bonuses, team events or prizes. Equally you can fuel the intrinsic motivators of engagement with the task at hand by adding to the toolkit that will help your team do their job. Those who are intrinsically motivated by the task will strive to achieve because they enjoy the role and the project they are working on. Therefore, ensure that they are enabled, empowered and equipped to carry out the job. If this requires some investment in software, training or a new set of tools then it could well be worth it. If the alternative is that they struggle to get the job done and end up being frustrated then the lack of investment is, perhaps, a false economy.

The most common question we get asked on our leadership programmes is about how to motivate team members and truly, the only way to do this is to know your team inside out. Take the time to understand their drivers and values and ensure you address them.

Recruit and develop your team well

In Jim Collins’ book ‘Good to Great’, he says that “…to build a successful organisation and team you must get the right people on the bus”. The point is evident. If you have well-skilled people with a high degree of aptitude and a positive attitude, then your job as leader becomes a lot easier.

If you are fortunate enough to be able to recruit your team from scratch then ensure you are clear on the profile you are looking for. Attitude and adaptability may be more important than qualification but, whatever your criteria, if the budget allows, don’t compromise. Experience says that gut feel counts for a lot when recruiting. On many occasions I have seen recruitment decisions made in haste because the gap ‘needed filling’ only for your ‘best of a bad bunch’ new-hire to leave after a few weeks. It’s far more costly to recruit badly and quickly than to be patient and be sure you have ‘the one.’

If you aren’t in the position to form your own team then get to know them quickly, understand how they need to develop and address those requirements through on-the-job training, external courses and/or mentoring. Again, the lack of attention here could be more costly than spending the time to address their needs.

There are no easy answers

It’s clear that there are no easy answers when it comes to doing more with less, but these few ideas  may help you achieve your goals in a challenging business environment. Ultimately, doing more with less is about being smart and deploying resources efficiently.

The culture around business is unlikely to change. The days of three hour lunches and trips to Wimbledon are over, so it’s time to be creative with resources and get the most out of your team. As a leader, the majority of your time should be spent managing and not doing, so keep this focus and ensure your team are pointing in the right direction. At the end of the year you can report back to the board that, with a lower budget and reduced headcount you have indeed, managed to achieve that 20% growth.

Now, who’s for a long lunch?


How top managers motivate and energise employees 

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About the author

Jonathan Cox is the Global Marketing Manager for learning and development providers TACK International and TMI World – offering open training courses and bespoke solutions around the areas of sales skills, leadership effectiveness, personal skills and organisational cultural change. With offices in 54 countries, TACK and TMI work with organisations of all sizes and across industries to help their people make a greater impact on business performance. When Jonathan is not spreading the word about TACK and TMI, he spends his free time cycling, snowboarding, skiing, playing golf, squash and tennis – and occasionally sleeping! Follow him on Twitter @jcox208 More blog posts by Jonathan Cox ››
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