When Leadership Doesn’t Know

It’s time to rely on core values, credible information, communication and creativity
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How clear is the view ahead for us, as leaders? Even in normal times when we think we know the dynamic, events often play out differently. Recently, we’ve been reminded just how different the future can be. From CEO to project manager, every one of us is asking how to lead in the face of massive uncertainty.

Speaking with business leaders in late March and early April, I heard a consistent desire for credible information, clear communication, better teamwork, strong partnerships and new opportunities. These desires become even more valuable when set in the context of core values.

“I’ve spent a lot of time looking at our core values, which is to put people first, in front of profits,” Imtra CEO Eric Braitmayer says. “If we align decisions with our core values when times are good, are they still our core values when things get challenging?”

Imtra is a New Bedford, Mass.-based company that imports and manufactures equipment ranging from bow thrusters to LED lighting. The company ships a lot of product, especially in the spring. As of early April, Braitmayer had limited shipping to small packages and a request from a government contract. He has severely limited the number of staff allowed in the building during the covid-19 pandemic after asking himself questions like, Am I putting employees in a position I’d put myself in?

Braitmayer says that developing employees who consistently provide customers with their hard-earned knowledge in key product categories is as important to long-term success as the products the company sells.

Another principle Braitmayer leans on is to avoid making decisions too fast. “When things get amped up,” he says, “you want to move at the pace things are changing. Instead, I’m trying to ask, what needs to be decided today, and what can wait? If we wait, it will probably be a better decision, or it might not even be relevant.”

“Buckling down” is the term Jeff Johnstone, president of J/Boats, uses as he considers cutting expenses or doing things a different way, prioritizing what’s most important and discarding what yields the least. “We’re doing more things in-house,” he says. “We’re a design and marketing company, so we learn new skills when we need them.”

J/Boats is a family business that has survived each downturn during the past 43 years and continued to sell some of the most popular performance sailboats on the market. While his partners that build various J/Boats models in the United States and France have had production interrupted, Johnstone says his first principle is “not to panic, yet do everything with a sense of urgency. Do the normal self-analysis of what’s essential or not in terms of delivering services and boats, and then rescale the business to a realistic forecast.”

Johnstone points to the importance of communicating with builders, customers, dealers and industry partners. Not knowing the extent of the downturn ahead, he says, it’s important to keep everyone focused on the future, even as you navigate the present. Referring back to the launch of the J/70 in 2012, he says J/Boats learned that communicationg with partners and suppliers is a key to driving new business coming out of a recession.

With a new, larger boat now being tooled in France and a smaller one on the boards for the United States, Johnstone says he hopes the company is on a similar path, and he expects to have positive news to announce when the time is right, likely in a couple of months.

Braitmayer says he normally isn’t a high-profile CEO, but instead lets product managers and outside salespeople be the “face of the business.” But during the covid-19 pandemic, he is reaching out to customers to open an extra channel of communication.

He is also taking time for more one-on-one conversations internally, given that nearly all his staffers are working from home. “We go over regular stuff and keep some sense of normalcy,” he says. “But it also is a chance to ask, ‘How are you doing?’ It’s important to learn who is struggling with personal situations.”

Adds Braitmayer: “We have the benefit of a good financial backbone, and with the likelihood of coverage under the Paycheck Protection Program, no layoffs are expected.” He recognizes that the pandemic is hitting the boat business hard and knows that if Imtra doesn’t get its loans, salaries may need adjustment. But as company leader, he remains optimistic and sees the stay-at-home time as a chance to build new skills in digital communications, and to develop the company’s push into increased content marketing. The question he wants to focus on is, “What can we do so we come out of this faster than someone else?”

Johnstone says he looks for the opportunity to pivot the business in a time of disruption. One opportunity is J/Net, a multiple listing service that will be located on the J/Boats website to help dealers sell their brokerage boats alongside the new boats. It will have a J/Boats buyer’s guide that discusses buying new and used boats in straightforward terms, including pricing.

Another opportunity is to open up the design team of Rod and Al Johnstone to work on boats other than new production models — an improved mast or keel for a used boat, or a handicap ratings analysis for a larger spinnaker. Johnstone says this type of work will complement the J/Net brokerage listings, which will offer plenty of prospect boats for design and engineering upgrades.

Both efforts continue the company’s long-term marketing effort to gather and focus the J/Boats community, reinforcing the strength of the brand. As a byproduct of that marketing effort, Johnstone is also confident the business will end up selling custom parts as upgrades to existing owners.

“Half of our call volume at the office is people looking for parts,” he says. “This could at least cover the overhead of handling all those calls.”

Uncertainty about the size and duration of the current downturn remains a leadership headache. Braitmayer says that with the amount of news and information he has been digesting, it’s hard to stay upbeat at all times, yet it’s important to manage his mood on Zoom calls to avoid affecting other staff members.

At the same time, he can switch to the optimist’s role quickly, as he did when we discussed getting consumers out of quarantine and on the water. “This is one area where I get fired up,” Braitmayer says. “Boating could be looked at completely differently than it was three months ago because people like the idea of just being with their family in a safe and isolated environment, in a beautiful space where things are calm. They might not want to be on the soccer field sidelines three days a week all summer. Families may say, ‘Team sports are cool, and there’s a place for them, but there’s also a place for boating.’ ” 

This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue.

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