| Jul 5, 2022

Leading Through Turmoil — Three Leaders Who Knocked It Out of the Park

The best leaders are able to weather the storm and they all share one key ingredient in their success – taking care of their employees.
By Kyle Pare |

3 minutes

We’re heading into some turbulent times, as if the last two years haven’t been rough enough. But it’s nothing Americans haven’t seen before. There have been 11 recessions since 1948, one for almost every seven years. All times are uncertain, as Simon Sinek so eloquently puts it. However, we can future-proof our companies by using the calm times to prepare us for the hard ones. 

If your business is struggling right now, it’s crucial (albeit extremely difficult) to look beyond the immediate problems to set yourself up for the future and remember that it’s people who make our businesses work. Some of the best brands were started during recessions, and one of the key things they had in common was how their leaders treated employees. People make our businesses work, and these three leaders knocked it out of the park by treating their employees as the heart of their success

George Jenkins Publix Supermarkets, 1930 

At the age of 23 and with the Great Depression well underway, George Jenkins took a leap, left his management job at Piggly Wiggly, and started his first Publix grocery store in Winter Haven, Florida. The worst economic downturn in American history was not a time of considerable stability, but Jenkins was quickly successful, opening a second store five years later. 

Jenkins knew that great organizations weren’t one-man operations. Instead, as he put it, “No man puts together an organization on his own.” To this day, the employees of Publix supermarkets are the company’s largest shareholders, which Jenkins saw to himself when he opened his store. He knew that employees who could share in the company’s profits would be more invested and motivated to excel. 

This people-first mentality extended well beyond sharing in profits. Jenkins’ office door was always open, and he encouraged his employees to share their concerns and troubles with him. He knew that providing that outlet was essential to making his employees feel heard and cared for. His empathetic leadership paved the way for a nationwide grocery chain that has endured for almost a century.

Trip Hawkins Electronic Arts, 1982

Trip Hawkins started out as a visionary young man who knew video games were the future. So important, in fact, that he joined Apple when it was still a tiny company in California. He took the opportunity to learn from Steve Jobs, improve his business acumen, and watched for the opportunity to create his own company (which he did in 1982 when he launched Amazin’ Software, EA’s precursor).

One of Hawkins’ key insights that led to EA becoming a worldwide leader in at-home gaming was his view of game designers as artists rather than just employees. He even sought advice from music record companies, wanting to hire designers under a contract similar to those employed for music artists. His devotion to his artists went so far that he launched his own console to help them keep the royalties that other console manufacturers would take; his loyalty and creation of EA’s 3DO cost Hawkins the company. But that was after he had made the game manufacturer one of the most influential companies in the industry.


David Cote Honeywell, 2008 

Cutting the labor force during bleak economic outlooks is an almost standard operating procedure for most companies. So when Honeywell started seeing its business slow in the fall of 2008, its CEO, Dave Cote, faced the same dilemma. But he didn’t choose the route so many other companies did at the beginning of what has since become known as the Great Recession, Cote didn’t choose to cut costs through layoffs.  

Cote knew that mass layoffs would hurt employee morale, and since taking the helm in 2002, he had led the company back from the brink of ruin by maintaining a laser-like focus on obtaining long-term success through short-term wins. He, therefore, made the unorthodox decision to furlough his employees rather than lay them off. Employees took several weeks of unpaid leave from the company, staggered so that no one group was bearing all the pain. Although his employees started to stress as the recession dragged on, these actions set up Honeywell to weather the storm as well as succeed during the recovery that followed.  

Cote was able to retain key talent while avoiding some of the unforeseen costs that layoffs can bring. In addition, Cote’s leadership, coupled with clear communication to his employees, built trust and allowed them to be in a better position to take advantage of the recovery that started in 2010.

Different Time, Same Challenges

As daunting as recessions are, America has experienced plenty of economic downturns before. Although we may not have personally lived through them, there have been periods of turmoil and upheaval before. The best leaders have been able to weather the storm, and one key ingredient in their success has been taking care of their employees. The lessons of the past are still applicable today, no matter the unique circumstances in which leaders find themselves.

Kyle Pare

Opinion Contributor, Strixus

Kyle Pare has been a freelance writer for two years and a communications officer in the military for nine. view profile


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