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How a Failing Company Can Bring Out the Best in You

Want to gain confidence, wisdom, and leadership skills in record time? Go to work for a floundering company.

If you've never worked for a floundering company, you don't know what you're missing.

I'm serious. Nothing will prepare you better to lead. And nothing will prepare you better for life.

I've worked for a number of companies that, at one time or another, found themselves on the ropes and, you know what? I learned more about business, management, and leadership trying to help those companies fight it out with giants like Microsoft and Intel than all the rest of my experience combined.

The truth is that working for troubled companies brings out the best in people. It creates strong, resilient, adaptive leaders. Here's what you'll learn by working for companies that have to slug it out with market leaders while on a shoestring budget:

How to drink from the fire hose without drowning. When you're understaffed, underfunded, and losing money every quarter, nobody's going to wait around for you to figure things out. Your customers have better things to do. So do your competitors. These days, markets are constantly changing. Everything moves at lightening speed. There's always too much information and never enough time to breathe. Better get used to it.

You can find your home. If there's a test for knowing if you're in the right place, it's when the company you work for is in deep trouble and everyone's got to sacrifice, pitch in, and fight. If you still love getting up in the morning and going to work under those conditions, then you've found your home.

You know what great leadership really is. Chief executives don't usually get fired when things are going well. They get canned when times are hard and the board figures out what they're really made of--and it falls short of their expectations. When business is floundering, that's when the rubber meets the road. That's when you can really tell if the company's leadership has what it takes: the guts, the smarts, and most of all, the resilience.

The miracle of market segmentation. One of the most powerful techniques in marketing is called market segmentation. We can't all be market leaders, but we can all find unique market segments and focus on leading those. It's all about positioning your product in a niche you can dominate, and then growing from there.

How to win no-win situations. When you're outmanned and outgunned, you always end up having to troubleshoot seemingly impossible problems. When you're pushed so hard that your back is up against a wall, that's exactly when you'll rise to the occasion and do your best work. That's right: necessity really is the mother of invention.

Guerilla warfare. Let's face it: You don't learn how to be scrappy, how to be crafty, how to do more with less, while working for the industry leader. You learn all that by working for an upstart that has to scrape and claw for every point of market share and every product feature with a fraction of the resources that the big guys have.

How tough and adaptive you really are. More than anything else, working for a company in trouble teaches you about yourself. You learn what you're really made of. What you're capable of doing when everything's on the line and everyone's counting on you. That's why troubled companies really are gold mines. They're opportunities for you to step up to the plate and take risks.

You'll gain confidence from your successes and wisdom from your failures. Most of all, you'll grow into whatever it is you're capable of becoming.

Posted: February 5, 2013, 9:59 AM