Being A Good Leader In Tough Times

Nov 24, 2010
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

A CEO’s job is never an easy one. Whether in good times or bad, a successful CEO must remain a good leader for his or her employees and the company as a whole. This is not a position for the faint of heart because it requires long hours and quite often tough decision-making. Last week, I was privileged to have been invited to the Western Washington University Business Forum here in Bellingham to hear the CEO of Haggan, Inc., Jim Donald, address some of these issues. The luncheon is an annual gathering of some of the business leaders in the community and is designed to help build links between the university and the private sector to generate financial support for student scholarships at the university.

Jim Donald joined Haggan, Inc., a Bellingham-based grocery chain with 32 stores in the Northwest, in October of 2009. Before Haggen, Donald was the North American president of Starbucks Coffee Company and was responsible for the overall management, business development, and operations of Starbucks in all North American markets. During this period, the company experienced record financial performance, attributable largely to its success in North America. But it wasn’t always like this for Donald. Prior to joining Starbucks, he served as chairman, president, and CEO of Pathmark Stores, Inc. and worked in a variety of senior management positions with Albertson’s, Safeway, and Wal-Mart. It is from these experiences that Donald shared his presentation with us at the Business Forum: lessons he learned on how to lead during difficult times.

As we move into the Thanksgiving holiday here in the States, it is a humbling reminder to all of us, whether we are business owners, recruiters, or both, to be appreciative of the good times as well as the bad in this business. For it is only in going through those bad times that we will truly begin to appreciate the good. And being a good leader means being able to guide your ship – in this case, your office and your employees – through those rough waters to find the calm. In Donald’s presentation, he outlined three key components to being a good leader:

  1. Have a story to tell. Donald shared a great story with our group about a talk he gave to his employees at Pathmark during one of the most difficult times during his tenure. To illustrate the point, he brought a huge salmon out of a cooler, held it up, and said, “No matter what you do, you’ve got to be able to articulate how you get from Step A to Step B.” No one in the room will forget the salmon and the simple lesson that was attached to it: swimming against the current is hard, fraught with danger, and may very likely end up in death at the end. But it will also ensure the survival of a new generation. Donald said that having a compelling story to tell – whether it is to clients, candidates, or colleagues – will make you a memorable leader.
  2. Never be bigger than your front line. This could be rephrased to say, “Never forget where you came from.” Donald, who started his career as a grocery bagger, shared about an interview he did in a Starbucks store during which he accidentally knocked a cup of coffee out of a barista’s hand and immediately fetched a mop and cleaned up the mess himself. Arguably, the most successful leaders in our business lead by example – that is, they still work a desk on top of managing an office or a training practice. Your employees will follow your example, good or bad. Don’t ever forget about how you got started in the recruiting business. It humbles us all!
  3. Take the time to celebrate success. This is especially important during tough times. By celebrating the successes of your employees or direct reports, you are encouraging them to keep moving forward even though times are tough. And don’t forget about yourself, either. Celebrate your own successes. As recruiting professionals, it can be easy to gloss over an accomplishment and look immediately on to the next prize. But make sure you stop and celebrate – and involve others. Your employees will appreciate the acknowledgment.

As the leading publication in the external search and placement world, we would like to practice these points as well! In the near future, we will begin running a series that celebrate you – our readers. We want to share in the joy of your successes, whether it’s making a placement, hiring a new recruiter, or giving back. If you’ve got a success story you want to share, please email it to

We at The Fordyce Letter wish each and every one of you a Happy Thanksgiving.

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” -John Fitzgerald Kennedy

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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