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Our handiest advice column yet: How to deal with any tough situation

Columnist Maynard Webb talks about how to assess—and fix—all sorts of tricky circumstances in business.

Our handiest advice column yet: How to deal with any tough situation
[Photo: Mohamed Nohassi/Unsplash]

Editor’s Note: Each week Maynard Webb, former CEO of LiveOps and the former COO of eBay, will offer candid, practical, and sometimes surprising advice to entrepreneurs and founders. To submit a question, write to Webb at dearfounder@fastcompany.com.

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Q. What’s your plan of attack when you are in a difficult situation? Can you share the plan that you use?

—Founder trying to survive a challenge

Dear Founder,

When I walk into any situation, the first thing I do is assess it. All companies, no matter how new or how mature, go up or down the maturity model based on market conditions that are very fluid. All companies move throughout these different phases on their quest for success.

This is the way I measure a company’s status:

Level 1. This is the disaster scenario. You didn’t do what you said you would do, and people are running around with their hair on fire (metaphorically). On any given day you can slip into Level 1—a meeting runs late, you miss your window to get to your next meeting, and you don’t gain pertinent information. When things start to spiral out of control, take measures to correct the situation immediately.

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Level 2. You didn’t yet achieve what you set out to do, but you have a clear plan in place. The plan is credible, you know who owns which tasks and goals, but you’re not effectively implementing the plan yet.

Level 3. You don’t have a lot of crises at this point. Your organization’s “say-to-do” ratio is close to one. You are predictable and reliable, but you are not achieving all the potential that you have. Your growth is healthy and your business is accommodating it well, but you need to build on this stability to gain momentum—and get ahead of the curve.

Level 4. You are operating efficiently. You are able to do more with less, and the feeling of winning is palpable. For example, when we got ahead of the scaling challenges at eBay, there was a difference that we felt. Our community members were happier, most of us got more sleep, and we all loved it so much we vowed to stay there. (I do find it interesting that the people who climbed from Level 1 or 2 to Level 4 never forget the climb and resolve never to go back. Team members who join at 4 don’t always understand the pain involved in the transformation, and this can lead to teams getting complacent.)

Level 5. Your team can operate without you, and it’s taking less time to get things done. You are now a resource for others. At this point, you are now able to chase new and additional opportunities. You have discovered the holy grail, where you are working on what matters most.

Remember, achieving success will mean having to continuously level up your company, and each division, over time. That’s why it’s so important to not just tread water and stay alive for today (Level 3), but to get ahead of the curve to prepare for tomorrow (Level 4). Also important to note: None of this framework is static. You can be doing a Level 5 activity (a great project that will be important tomorrow), while living in a Level 3 world (where you are stable, but not yet secure for the future). And you can have a Level 1 issue (losing a key employee) limit you and take time and cycles from where you want to be.

When I joined eBay, the company was at Level 1. I was brought in as Mr. Fix It. They said things weren’t working. That’s a euphemism for not scaling. My task was to take chaos and turn it into order. Here’s how we did it and a simple road map that you can follow:

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  • First, talk about what success looks like.
  • Decide what’s important and develop metrics on the key things that matter.
  • Implement forcing functions.
  • Have timely communication, where issues are addressed in minutes or hours, not days or weeks.
  • Escalate problems.
  • Understand that it’s not about what information you discover, but what you do with it. (Always ask, “What do we know now and what do we change?”)
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