LAS VEGAS — Managers should try to think of tough times as a chance to grow.

Linda Witham, a managing partner in the Woodland Hills, Calif., regional office of Thrivent for Luthernans, Minneapolis, gave that advice here earlier this week at the Leadership & Management Program, a conference organized by GAMA International, Falls Church, Va.

The LAMP conference attracted about 2,600 attendees from across the financial services community.

Witham, who holds the Certified Financial Planner and Chartered Financial Consultant professional designations, is the 2009-2010 president of GAMA International.

She recalled starting her career as a life insurance agent in 1983, when the economy looked about as abysmal as it does today.

Stock prices were down, and inflation and unemployment levels were high.

But “I didn’t know I was supposed to be discouraged,” Witham said. “I just knew that to build my career, I needed to do what [my manager] told me: Prospect, build new relationships, and sell my clients what they needed.”

Two years later, she said, she and her husband bought their first house in California. And, through hard work, they moved from being a struggling couple to becoming successful life insurance professionals. By 1991 – a year of economic turmoil and war in Iraq — Witham had become a front-line manager.

“All of us can be swept away by life’s challenges,” Witham said. “Or we can view them as unique blessings for the opportunity we are given to grow. We can view our glass as half-empty or half-full.”

To help maintain a positive attitude during touch economic times, Witham suggested that LAMP attendees keep a “happy journal.” For 5 minutes each day, she said, attendees should record activities they enjoy, write about friends and colleagues who are fun to be around, and add any other uplifting thoughts.

“Writing a happy journal naturally leads me to a sense of gratitude,” Witham said. “And this is so contagious, because it makes others around me happy, too.”

Witham said another essential in the face of adversity is to stay connected with the individuals who “build you up”: family, friends, industry colleagues and team members.

Whether part of a small or large organization, she said, managers should spend time and planning to develop close relationships with teammates.

She added that managers learn most when they teach.

She said one of her greatest joys and a source of much learning during the past 4 years has been the privilege of mentoring and coaching 6 new “front-line leaders” on her team. She encouraged LAMP attendees to each take a “Lotter”–a Leader of Today and Tomorrow–under their wings.

In tough times, Witham said, it’s important to develop close relationships with agents and to prepare them to communicate with clients and prospects.

To that end, said Witham, Thrivent Financial has developed a role play technique to simulate objections raised by prospects during cold calls.

“Make the role-play harder than real life,” Witham said. “Give your agents the confidence they need to face whatever comes their way.”

Just as the best agents must reach out more to clients, managers must reach out more to their agents, Witham said.

“Have you spent more time to be the voice of optimism for your agents this past year?” she asked. “It’s our job every day to build an organization to withstand the challenges–and to avoid what some of us recognize as a long, steady decline.”

Citing Jim Collins, author of How the Mighty Fall, Witham said an institution may look strong on the outside, but be sick on the inside–on “the cusp of a fall.”

Witham listed 4 markers of an organization in decline.

In stage 1, said Witham, the organization believes it deserves success irrespective of its actions.

In stage 2 (“neglect of a primary flywheel”), the organization is easily distracted by new ventures and opportunities.

In stage 3, the “what” replaces the “why”: Organization leaders don’t think about what they do, nor why they do those activities. And thus they are caught unawares when, and under what conditions, procedures and processes no longer work.

“We become that Darwinian example of the species that doesn’t adapt to survive,” said Witham.

In stage 4, she said, there is a decline in learning orientation.

“Do we as leaders continue to be inquisitive and praise learning as much as when we were new managers?” she asked.