The Key to Handling Difficult Situations

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How can you and your staff avoid feeling overwhelmed when handling difficult situations? This CEO shares tips for finding balance within your life and team.
As a small-business owner, you’re often charged with providing vision, leadership and a plan of attack. How do you handle adversity and the daily grind of managing your organization?

As CEO of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), Anne Stausboll oversees retirement options for more than 1.7 million California workers and an investment portfolio of more than $300 billion, and must handle a rapidly changing regulatory, technology, political and investing landscape.

Stausboll’s experience managing her agency is relevant for small, growing businesses. Here she offers several timely strategies to keep your business running smoothly, and reveals how balance plays a big part in effectively handling difficult situations.

What do you do to optimize your days and stay sane?

Strive to make a positive difference every day. If you can figure out how to keep your workplace, meetings and culture positive, you are on your way.

You need personal balance and wellness to maximize your productivity. Everyone does this differently. I start each day by walking along the river with my dog and enjoying the wildlife. Whether it’s family time, exercise or your own personal hobby, we all need to find our own path to keep our energy level up and stay positive.

I also start each morning by going over what I am trying to get out of the day. I try not to get swamped in impromptu meetings, email and the things that pop up during the day. It’s the “pop ups” that are distracting and can prevent me from spending the majority of time on the important and strategic issues.

How do you prepare your team for everyday changes or emergencies?

Of course it is different for every culture. At CalPERS, creating balance in the organization has been critical. Moving the conversation to balance has been a turning point for us, and the idea for that was generated from the bottom up.

We had a set of five core values—quality, integrity, respect, accountability and openness—for a couple of decades. After the 2008 market failure and the discovery that a few prior CalPERS officials had engaged in corrupt practices, I felt it was important for our employees to revisit our core values.

After several focus groups, the resounding consensus was to retain the existing values and add a new one: balance. This includes not only a personal work-life balance, but also the ability to focus on long-term goals while meeting short-term needs. Balance also means supporting a positive and optimistic environment. Whether you are dealing with change management, a crisis or a long-term challenge, it is a huge advantage to start from a balanced position.

How do you prepare your management team to handle challenges?

The executive team has to act in concert, stay positive and speak with one voice once a decision is made. When the team is working well together, it is energizing to work on challenges. Resolving a tough problem brings people together and reminds us all of why we are here.

How do you create a culture of success?

Openness has been key to our culture. I place a high priority on transparency, which is very important to our employees as well as our board and external stakeholders. When I started, our workforce was asking for more information and increased communication, and I have worked hard to address that.

Each spring, I do a series of “Coffee with Anne” sessions with our staff; it is an opportunity to meet informally with our staff in smaller groups, answer their questions and hear their concerns and ideas.

We recently introduced an internal social media platform called “The Spark,” which has been very popular. One of the things we are using it for is as a virtual town hall venue, which we are going to use for various purposes, including spurring innovation. The open culture works extremely well with the millennial cohort because they love to share ideas and information in a non-hierarchical way.

If you could share one thing that small-business owners can do to take their firms to the next level, what would it be?

Strive to make a positive difference every day. If you can figure out how to keep your workplace, meetings and culture positive, you are on your way.

Founder, The Charisse Amanda Group
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