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Leadership in the Era of Economic Uncertainty: Managing in a Downturn [Hardcover]

Ram Charan
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Jan. 12 2009

“There is no better person than Ram Charan to provide advice on managing in a downturn.”
–Larry Bossidy, former Chairman & CEO Honeywell International Inc.

"This is all classic guru writing, stressing the extremity of the situation. But from Charan - who has already brought us bestsellers such as Execution and What the CEO Wants You to Know - it seems plausible. His forte is bold advice, delivered with convincing rhetoric. And he has completed his new text just at the right time."
--Financial Times

As a business leader today, you face an unprecedented challenge: the worldwide economic downturn. Cash and credit are dwindling, sales forecasts are dismal, and morale is sinking. This is not a time to reflect. It is a time to act, decide, and energize your people—with urgency.

This is your moment. Are you up to the task?

In Leadership in the Era of Economic Uncertainty, Ram Charan helps you steer your business through the minefield of contracting markets, cash shortages, and ongoing uncertainty. No matter what your leadership role, Charan’s insight will help ensure that your business emerges leaner, stronger, and well in front of the competition.

“We will not know when we have turned the corner, and we cannot envision the shape and scope of the world that will emerge,” Charan writes. “What we can be sure of is that this is a time of tumultuous change, and with change come both danger and opportunity.”

In this concise and highly accessible guide, the author provides practical actions you can execute immediately to

  • Protect cash flow vigilantly, even daily, and use cash more efficiently
  • Use ground intelligence to survive the storm and position your business to thrive in the aftermath
  • Develop a better understanding of your customers
  • Reevaluate your pricing strategy and capital expenditures
  • Use cost cutting strategically

Using examples and case studies, Leadership in the Era of Economic Uncertainty illustrates how leaders at DuPont, Hanesbrands, Wipro, and other companies used Charan’s techniques to get results.

The chaos of global economic meltdown has imposed an urgency you have never before experienced. It’s a scary thing, but it can also be exciting—if you’re prepared.



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From the Back Cover

“You’ve never experienced so much change and uncertainty or faced such a deep downturn. Yet others are looking to you for strength and guidance. Are you up to the challenge? Whether you lead a company, business unit, or small group of people, Leadership in the Era of Economic Uncertainty will be an invaluable tool for navigating today’s troubled economic waters.”
—from the Foreword by Larry Bossidy

Inside, business advisor Ram Charan describes steps you can take right now to steer your organization away from the pitfalls and position it for a new future. You’ll find practical techniques that will help you cope with:

  • CASH AND CREDIT CRUNCHES
  • SHRINKING BUDGETS
  • COLLAPSING MARKETS
  • SINKING WORKFORCE MORALE
  • DISAPPEARING SUPPLIERS
  • NERVOUS STAKEHOLDERS

Great business thinkers like Ram Charan see opportunity in chaos. His innovative, commonsense way of approaching problems has made him one of the world’s most sought-after consultants. Here, he provides help to leaders at every level, from the CEO and country managers to department heads in finance, marketing, sales, and manufacturing.

Leadership in the Era of Economic Uncertainty offers clear guidelines for seizing opportunity and persevering in today’s global economy. Fight your fear and anxiety— and take your leadership to the next level, now.

About the Author

Ram Charan is the coauthor of bestsellers Execution and Confronting Reality and the author of What the CEO Wants You to Know and 10 other books. A noted expert on business strategy, he has coached some of the world’s most successful CEOs and helped companies like GE, Bank of America, Verizon, KLM, and Thomson shape and implement their strategic direction.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
By Robert Morris HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
I have read and reviewed all of Ram Charan's previously published books and was thus eager to read this one in which he shares his thoughts about how to follow "the new rules for getting the right things done in difficult times." Although the rules he discusses are hardly "new," these are indeed difficult times and require decision-makers in all organizations (regardless of size or nature) to provide effective leadership. More specifically, leadership that is honest and credible because it is authentic (i.e. transparent, visible, and consistent), inspires others, is connected with reality in real time, realistic tempered with (cautious) optimism, hands-on "in the foxhole," and bold while in pursuit of what Jim Collins characterizes as a "BHAG" (i.e. big hairy audacious goal). According to Charan, "being a leader in tough and uncertain times means always anticipating the next challenge and building the fortitude and skills to face it."

Easier said than done? Of course. In fact, developing a new mindset may be the single greatest challenge that C-level executives (especially CEOs) now face. "The new reality is that barring acquisitions, your company will be smaller two years from now than it is today." Therefore, success in what will continue to be a volatile business environment "requires frequent adjustments at the operational level of the business as well as an occasional disruptive shift. It demands what I call [begin italics] management intensity [end italics]: a deep immersion in the operational details of the business and the outside world combined with hands-on involvement and followthrough." As I suggested earlier, Charan offers no head-snapping revelations, nor does he make any such claim.
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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  22 reviews
26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Missing the operational dimensions needed to improve and extend cash flow Jan. 30 2009
By Mark P. McDonald - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Ram Charan's Leadership in an Era of Economic Uncertainty (LEEU) is a playbook for senior executives to get back to the basics in these tough economic times. Charan is the first author to take a serious look at what running a company will be like under the assumption that the economy will not recover in the short run, but rather what you will need to be effective over the next two to three years.

In this regard, it is an excellent book with clear guidance, well written and focused on the basics. It's a 125-page primer for executives to remind them what it means to manage in tough times. Based on that strength it's a five star review - but there are some serious omissions that limit the completeness of the playbook - hence the missing pages in operations and IT.

THE MAJOR WEAKNESS IS that this book treats leadership as financial leadership paying ALMOST NO ATTENTION TO LEADING OPERATIONALLY or the the changes necessary to acheive and extend operational and cash performance. That is the reason for the two stars, as its a good book on the financial dimension, but just following that financial advice may lead companies into strategic and operational dead ends.

CEO's and CFO's will like this book. Other executives, particularly COO's, BU leaders and CIOs should read the book and supplement it with their operational plans to achieve and sustain operational improvements - the big gap in this book.

Charan gives clear advice that is free from pontification or opinion. You get the feeling that you are sitting across the table from an executive that is giving you clear guidance and a tough message that you need to pay attention to. Couple this book with Kotter's "A Sense of Urgency" to know how to manage the change all companies face.

However, there are two major weaknesses in the book.

First is the lack of discussion regarding the use of information, technology and communications to drive operational performance. This is surprising given that many of the recommendations in the book require technology to execute them properly. In fact the collaboration, performance reporting, supplier coordination, customer intelligence are more expensive and less powerful if they are not supported by effective information and technology. Charan's excellent discussion in other areas and the four paragraphs he dedicates to IT give executives the impression that they can get by without good information or effective IT. Leading companies know that this is not possible and while IT cannot be a cash or capital black hole, effective enterprises have effective IT.

Second, reading between the lines you get the sense that Charan sees leadership in this environment in terms of the CEO/CFO and everyone else. The treatment of the other executives and the employees in the book puts the CEO and CFO against everyone else. This is subtle but clear throughout the book. The bias is expressed in terms of the number of pages dedicated to each role CEO/CFO get 20 while 8 for each other role. Only the CFO gets a section that describes their role to the CEO. Every other role is described in terms of a focus on finances, cash and cutting costs with little treatment of operations. Now the CEO and CFO are important roles, but they are not the only ones required to get results. The omission of IT and the Charan's light treatment of operational considerations are unfortunate from the co-author of Execution.

Overall it's still a good book to read, but it's not a complete playbook. Here are a review of the overall strengths, challenges and each of the role/chapter discussions.

Strengths:

Concentrating on the importance of cash flow and cash generation. This is the first third of the book and Charan puts the issues of cash clearly on the table.

Recognizing that the post uncertainty world will be different than the world we knew and the world we are managing through.

Recognizing that the company is a system and that managing it for one dimension, even cash, can have unintended consequences.

Strong advice on how CEOs should lead in this environment and their need for getting their "hands on, heads in" the business.

Challenges

The book is a neo-classical view on management with little to no consideration of how to use information, technology or communications to restructure the company and better match resources to revenues. The advice in LEEU was applicable back in the 1950's as much as it is today, despite the fact that technology and the economy have changed.

The focus is on finance more than on the operations that drive finance. In my experience operational data is a leading indicator of what is happening, and Charan recognizes this, yet his focus is on managing from a finance perspective, which is a lagging indicator of what has happened.

The lack of serious consideration given to information and information technology, particularly given the need to make companies more flexible, respond to changes in the market.

The driving concern on cost to the point that Charan's advice on how to deal with a tough economy can become a self fulfilling prophesy. From page 42, "The objective is to cut costs before revenues decline and to get ahead of the curve. Timing and speed matter." Such a management philosophy was part of the recipe for the Great Depression. Few people have cut their way to greatness, and there could be more on the customer service, growth and other issues discussed in the book.

ROLE/CHAPTER REVIEW

The book is organized into sections based on each of the major roles played on the executive team. This is a unique way of looking at the issues and I would recommend reading all the roles. This "you" frequently used in the text refers to you as CEO, CFO, BU executive among others. The sections and highlights include:

Corporate Crisis - how DuPont recognized and reacted to the economy

The Challenge of Managing in a Toxic Environment - the best 20 pages on what to do in this environment including the six essential leadership traits for hard times:

- Honesty and Credibility
- The ability to inspire
- Real-time connection with reality
- Realism tempered with optimism
- Managing with intensity
- Boldness in building for the future

At the Helm - the CEO - concentrates on the need for CEOs to become more engaged in the company, the fact that you are leading in an environment of uncertainly and volatility, the need to face up to that and the fact that the future will not be an extension of the past. Charan points out that understanding operational data is more important and critical than getting the financials. The tool for CEOs is the "cash breakeven point" which has changed for every company.

On the Front Lines - Sales and Marketing - concentrates on the need to maintain a focus on generating revenues and the fact that those revenues will be harder to come by in the future. Charan reminds us that there is a need to keep the sales force motivated, engaged and with the customer so we can all understand what is going on. The tool for Sales and Marketing professionals is constant communication with the field and Marketing ROI.

Mind over Money - the CFO - this section concentrates on issues of cash, cost and the CFO's role in leading in these areas. While frequent budgeting and cash flow analysis are the CFO's tools, Charan positions the CFO as the advisor of last resort to the CEO. I think that this is unfortunate as it basically says that all decisions are finance driven and it sets the operational executives who deliver the results in a pejorative position. Particularly the COO and the CIO who are often the executives in the best position to effect and sustain operational change.

Making it all work - Operations recognizes that operations is at the heart of the company. The tool is restructuring operations to cut capacity to meet demand. Here on page 78 Charan points out that the enterprise is a system and cuts in some areas can create havoc in others. It would have been nice for him to provide similar advice to the CFO.

Refocusing Innovation - Research and Development is a variation on the theme of resource reduction, concentrating on the choices that will pay off and support the enterprise. Their tools? Zero based budgeting for R&D projects and an active "end of life" focus on R&D projects. Charan points to the use of offshore resources as a way of cutting R&D expense but maintaining R&D capacity.

Tying it all together - the supply chain recognizes the importance of these operational processes to cash flow. Here the tool is synchronizing activities across the supply chain, a good thing. A better thing would have been a discussion of how you reduce the unit of work within the supply chain (from say a truck of product to a case) to improve its flexibility and responsiveness.

Supporting the team - the staff functions has some good material and some real gaps. The normal coverage of HR, Legal, IR and IT are contained in here. This is disappointing as this treatment does not reflect the role of IT in the core of operations - a real gap as leaders are using information in new ways to preserve cash. I am particularly taken a back by Charan's binary description of leaders versus individual contributors (page 104) as it seems in this world you are either one or the other. BTW individuals are to be pushed out of the company as they do not have `specific budgets supporting them" This is unfortunate in that individuals doing their jobs well drive the changes in operations, not the managers who oversee the work. This is a surprising gap in the book.

The view from the top - the board of directors exercise their responsibility for the shareholders through a combination of strong oversight, realistic goal setting, and risk management.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The "hands on, head in" imperative during an "economic cyclone" Jan. 21 2009
By Robert Morris - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I have read and reviewed all of Ram Charan's previously published books and was thus eager to read this one in which he shares his thoughts about how to follow "the new rules for getting the right things done in difficult times." Although the rules he discusses are hardly "new," these are indeed difficult times and require decision-makers in all organizations (regardless of size or nature) to provide effective leadership. More specifically, leadership that is honest and credible because it is authentic (i.e. transparent, visible, and consistent), inspires others, is connected with reality in real time, realistic tempered with (cautious) optimism, hands-on "in the foxhole," and bold while in pursuit of what Jim Collins characterizes as a "BHAG" (i.e. big hairy audacious goal). According to Charan, "being a leader in tough and uncertain times means always anticipating the next challenge and building the fortitude and skills to face it."

Easier said than done? Of course. In fact, developing a new mindset may be the single greatest challenge that C-level executives (especially CEOs) now face. "The new reality is that barring acquisitions, your company will be smaller two years from now than it is today." Therefore, success in what will continue to be a volatile business environment "requires frequent adjustments at the operational level of the business as well as an occasional disruptive shift. It demands what I call [begin italics] management intensity [end italics]: a deep immersion in the operational details of the business and the outside world combined with hands-on involvement and followthrough." As I suggested earlier, Charan offers no head-snapping revelations, nor does he make any such claim. He is a world-class empiricist and pragmatist with highly developed street smarts who helps executives to understand what works, what doesn't, and why. Everything he recommends is common sense. The business world he now surveys, however, is quite different from the one he surveyed when writing The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership-Powered Company. The advice he offers in Leadership in the Era of Economic Uncertainty is essentially the same as it has been since then (2000) but with one great difference: There is no longer any margin for error. "You must dig into the right details with much higher frequency than ever before."

To paraphrase Thomas Paine, "These are the times that try CEOs' souls." The realities they must recognize and to which they must then respond are more numerous and more perilous than ever before. In a previously published book, Know-How, Charan discusses the eight skills that separate people who perform from those who don't:

1. "Positioning (and when necessary, repositioning) your business by zeroing in on the central idea that meets customer needs and makes money;
2. Connecting the dots by pinpointing patterns of external change ahead of others;
3. Shaping the way people work together by leading the social system of your business;
4. Judging people by getting to the truth of a person;
5. Molding high-energy, high-powered, high-ego people into a working team of leaders in which they equal more than the sum of their parts;
6. Knowing the destination where you want to take your business by developing goals that balance what the business can become with what it can realistically achieve;
7. Setting laser-sharp priorities that become the road map for meeting your goals; and
8. Dealing creatively and positively with societal pressures that go beyond the economic value creation activities of your business."

All of these skills are needed when accommodating "the new rules for getting things done in difficult times." Board members, C-level executives, and heads of departments all need "know-how" but they also need "know-what." I agree with Peter Drucker that "There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all" and with Michael Porter that "The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do." Leaders must also be effective communicators so that everyone involved knows what their organization's goals are and understands why those goals must be achieved. Charan cites Chad Holliday, CEO of DuPont, as an example of a leader who answered the call when realizing that a global economic crisis was imminent. "He stared into the face of uncertainty and accepted the change he saw coming. Neither fear nor uncertainty paralyzed him. He took charge, pulled people together, and took decisive action. This is what every leader must do now."

Only 127 pages, this is Charan's shortest book. It is also, in my opinion, his most valuable book thus far because it offers both a call to action and a wealth of sound advice about what to do as well as what not to do, how to do what must be done, and why "hands on, head in" is the guiding principle. "Adjust your mindset, gather your people, and tackle the problems squarely" As noted earlier, Charan aserts that "being a leader in tough and uncertain times means anticipating the next challenge and building the fortitude and skills to face it." With all due respect to CEOs such as Chad Holliday, an organization's success will ultimately depend upon having effective leaders at all levels and in all areas. In this context, presumably Ram Charan agrees with me that this brief excerpt from Lao-Tzu's Tao Te Ching provides an appropriate conclusion to my review of Charan's latest book:

"Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves."
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Disappointment from a Usually Great Author Dec 18 2009
By Eric Kassan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
While there is some good advice in this book, most of it is generic and applies in good times as bad. The one key new directive is to focus on cash more than anything else. This follows clearly if one understands the business fundamentals presented in the author's book What the CEO Wants You to Know : How Your Company Really Works. Since credit is tighter, and most companies' financials will look worse with declining revenues, getting cash externally will be much more difficult. The best solution is to work to avoid needing external cash.

Another new suggestion is to accept the greater uncertainty by revising budgets more frequently. By doing so, companies can react more quickly and also keep goals more realistic. With (unchanging) annual budgets in a very uncertain world, a month or two into the year, the budget may already be impossible, or met, if a turnaround happens sooner than expected. Either way, persisting with a grossly unrealistic budget for most of a year is not a good idea.

Unfortunately these two solid ideas and a little fluff (advice applicable anytime) does not make for compelling book.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A different view of leadership July 24 2009
By Robert Selden - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Whilst the sub title of "Leadership In The Era Of Economic Uncertainty" reads "The New Rules for Getting the Right Things Done in Difficult Times", it is more a narrative by the author Ram Charan than "rules" per se. None-the-less, the narrative is effective, well directed and most pertinent to today's business leaders. Written in the first person, it could at times be likened to lecturing - this should not be taken as a criticism as once one gets used to the author's style it in fact becomes quite evocative.

Although Charan does not say so, this is a book for CEOs and the senior management of organisations. For instance. it has specific chapters for the CEO and the Heads of Sales & Marketing, Finance, Operations, R & D, the Supply Chain and the Staff Functions. There is even a chapter for the Board. Each chapter has key actions that leaders in each of these areas can apply. Because of the writer's style, a summary of the key points at the end of each chapter would have been useful to aid memory and assist implementation.

If you are looking for an understanding of the principles that underpin organisational success, this book has the answers. For example, in the chapter for Chief Financial Officers, the writer describes two types of CFOs. One type are those who look outwardly toward investors and make sure the company's debt ratings, price/earnings ratio and financing/refinancing of debt structure are adequate and appropriate. The second type of CFOs are those who work more internally in partnership with the CEO in managing financial performance and maintaining the company's sound financial health. These types are not mutually exclusive, but the discussion and the tips for managing both aspects in tough times, would be useful to both CEOs and CFOs. In this chapter, Charan also has some great tips for managing the finances throughout the organisation by ". . . educating the troops in liquidity, most of whom do not have a clue about liquidity."

It's easy to see that Charan has a good handle on day-to-day corporate life - he is not just a theorist. For example, his keen understanding that "CFOs have a tendency not to trust line managers to do the right thing in all cases and therefore put some resources in reserve without telling anyone in case the company looks like it might come up short at the end of the quarter" will resonate with most senior financial managers.

Charan also has great tips for the other senior corporate managers. In the chapter on Operations, he covers both product and service type organisations. He provides an excellent example of how tough times can affect service delivery in the airline industry. With the downturn in business class travel, some airlines' capacity dropped by as much as 70%. This left the same number of cabin crew to service far less customers. One would expect customers to get far more attention. What often happened was that customers actually received less attention - because there were less people to serve, cabin crew took up the idle time by talking more amongst themselves. Charan's advice is to make sure your service functions are appropriately staffed and the need for service is stressed even more in these times.

Charan also has good news for trainers. Instead of cutting the training budget, he suggests that it should be more focused. "HR needs to create and deliver the appropriate materials and methods in areas such as contract negotiations and price setting, with an emphasis on collaboration. You will get a big return on investment if you recruit your own senior executives to teach some of these sessions by using actual information, problems and challenges. Not only will such sessions bring home the reality of why people need to master these skills, they will give the `teachers' a fresh insight into their own psychology and valuable input from people on the line."

From an organisation development perspective, one initial concern I had about the book was the number of times senior leaders were advised to communicate directly with the Board. Does this hint at a lack of role definition between CEO and the Board?. How should the CEO handle his/her direct reports communicating directly with the Board? This concern was not evident however, in the chapter written for the Board which focused on the Board/CEO relationship. Perhaps this role definition could be better spelt out. I was impressed with some of the common sense advice for the Board, such as having a cocktail party for 20 senior managers the day before a Board meeting. This meeting is not intended to provide further corporate information for the Board, rather it is to enable the Board members to gauge the morale of the organisation.

This would be a great book for anyone in a senior management role. For trainers, it could be very useful for two reasons - self-education to get a real handle on perhaps some unfamiliar areas of corporate life and as pre-reading for senior management and leadership development programmes. For coaches of senior executives, various chapters could be really good resources for clients' personal development. It's also recommended reading for anyone in a staff function wishing to improve their personal credibility within the organisation.

Bob Selden, author What To Do When You Become The Boss: How new managers become successful managers
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Costs down within days! Most inspiring to make changes April 9 2009
By Natalia Roschina - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In short: I would highly recommend this book to entrepreneurs who are looking for ideas on how to change their organizations. I would also recommend it to consultants who assist entrepreneurs in changing or strengthening organizations.

Thank you, Ram, for this book! There is only a small number of books that really inspire to change things. Within a week of reading the book, I halved the rent at my company (managing for cash), eliminated consultants changing lots of what they did into systems, prepared for the worst scenario and on with other execution that is too long to list here. Well, a lot of cash recovered just in a week which is a measurable result. No other books have inspired me to do such things in such a short time. And my staff loved it (not all of the consultants.....)

I have my company in Japan, and want to give lots of copies to people I know. Japanese entrepreneurs need to read it as a wake up call, so hope we would get a Japanese translation VERY soon.

It is a shame to see long reviews that do not reflect on any changes they have made at their companies inspired by the book. For business books no point talking about how good or bad they were, they either inspired and helped with changes or not.

Ram, thank you so much again, and look forward to your new books for entrepreneurs/leaders/change makers. Entrepreneurs, don't listen to academic reviews of this book, read, execute and judge for yourself.
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