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Ready for the Rebound?

Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith offers five strategies to help business leaders stay sharp while the economy finds its edge.

Caution: Watching the economy seesaw between recession and recovery can cause financial whiplash and career paralysis, not to mention a seriously sore neck. Whether you’re biding time in a corner office or desperately seeking new revenue streams, it’s easy to let economic uncertainty stop you in your tracks.

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After all, it’s best to endure a downturn by sitting on the sidelines and waiting for business to rebound, right? Wrong, says Marshall Goldsmith, one of Forbes‘s top five executive coaches in 2000. In fact, Goldsmith insists that there’s no better time for business leaders to explore new ideas and launch pilot projects than now — when the economy is on the skids.

“People, time, resources — they are sunk costs that have already been booked,” he says. “It’s more expensive to spend money on those things during the boom times, when they would be eating into your profits.”

Here, Goldsmith offers five strategies for making sure your company’s cachet doesn’t cash out while you’re waiting for the economy to turn that elusive corner back to prosperity.

Develop Product Ideas

First, Goldsmith says, explore all those “if we had time, we would love to …” ideas that have been languishing on the shelf since the glory days of a robust economy.

“Clean out the closet,” he says. “Pull out all those good ideas you haven’t had time to address. Then look ahead to new ideas.”

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And the best way to generate fresh ideas? Ask. “Reach out to your clients, to your customers. You’ll get lots of data — and help.”

Pilot New Projects

Don’t just sit there. Put those new product ideas into practice while there’s no line of customers breathing down your neck to deliver. An economic downturn, Goldsmith says, provides an ideal opportunity to reload the pipeline with pilot projects and to fatten lists of beta customers.

With the extra capacity typically available during a downturn, the marginal cost of launching a pilot project drops significantly. In other words, it’s better to devote resources to tomorrow’s next big thing rather than to stand idly by waiting for business to improve.

Conduct Research

“This is a great time to complete all that research you can’t do when you’re overbooked,” Goldsmith says, again pointing out that the financial costs of conducting research are lower when times are slow. Now is the time to learn new things, talk to customers and colleagues, catch up on your reading, and perhaps visit the library.

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Write

Write an article for a magazine, a professional journal, or your company newsletter. Whatever the medium, whatever the topic, writing forces clear thinking and solid research on any idea.

“Even if your work is not published, you should still write,” Goldsmith says. “It doesn’t matter. You can always send out your writings to potential customers.”

Network

If the word “network” conjures images of too many business cards, anonymous cocktail hours, and cavernous convention centers, think again. Goldsmith recommends proactively devising ways to work together with colleagues, customers, and even competitors to develop win-win partnerships.

What are some complementary capabilities we share? How can we work together to add value to clients without adding to our overhead? Goldsmith says those are the kinds of networking questions that companies should explore during a downturn. Smart companies, he says, will add value to their offerings, increase their distribution, and keep expenses low as the economy begins to improve.

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Ryan Underwood (runderwood@fastcompany.com) works on the Fast Company Web team. Marshall Goldsmith (marshall@a4sl.com) is the founder of Alliance for Strategic Leadership (A4SL) and the coeditor of a new book from the Peter F. Drucker Foundation: Leading for Innovation: & Organizing for Results (Jossey-Bass, 2001).

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