When uncertain circumstances are thrust upon you and your business, it will require all of your personal leadership facility to weather the storm. In addition to your leadership, you will also need to make management decisions quickly. Those decisions will impact your people in the short and long term. It’s a lot to balance, but you can do it if you keep a few things in mind.
Growing up on the East Coast of Florida, I became acutely aware of the need for early planning when hurricanes would threaten. Moving to Charleston three months before Cat 4 hurricane Hugo, I received a major lesson in disaster preparedness and recovery. In addition to those experiences, I started a software business during the depths of the dot-com crash and served as CEO through 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis. Here is some of what I developed to help my business survive and then thrive during times of uncertainty.
It Begins and Ends with People
If you think about your people, if you genuinely weigh their interests and make decisions to provide for them when things are uncertain, then they will carry you through any circumstance. They will adapt to the uncertainty and they will develop their best ideas to help you overcome the challenges facing your business.
In contrast, if you make decisions based on non-human factors, then you will put a wedge between your business and your people. You then lose the creativity and support of the very people your business needs during this period.
Think about and act for your people and they will protect your business. Or think only about your business and you will lose the trust of your people, and your business will suffer. Not only is prioritizing your people the proper thing to do, it happens to be the best and only way to protect your business.
Hold Both Immediate Term and Long Term In Your Mind
Under immense pressure I often retreat to list-making. List-making is to me what a well-worn blanket is to a toddler. To get myself through a particularly uncertain time, I will write lists of things to do right now and lists of things that I want to be true in the more distant future.
You need to act now on things that threaten your people and your business. A good plan today is better than the best plan tomorrow. You need to act because things need to be addressed. But you also need to act so people know something is being done. People get increasingly anxious when they feel that a threat is not being addressed. Likewise, people have their anxiety reduced when they feel the tribe is taking action.
While you act in small increments today, you also need to develop a vivid image in your mind of what the future looks like after you navigate this situation. I think about what it will be like in three, six, twenty-four months.
I make lists of the future good things we will have accomplished in the various timeframes. This helps my mind not succumb to complete panic in the moment.
Perhaps the hardest version of this I ever experienced was on 9/11 and the weeks and months following. Soon after 9/11, I boarded a flight from Charleston to Las Vegas for a prospect visit. When we landed in Houston for a layover, the airport was empty. It was about 8:00 p.m. at night and a security guard took us on a cart through the airport. It was surreal. As he dropped us off at the escalator, I vividly remember going down to the next level and looking back up at the guard on his cart. I was literally sinking down those stairs as I watched this man feeling sad for us and uncertain of his own future.
Unlike a hurricane, which has a somewhat known impact and recovery time, I had no frame of reference as to the size of this uncertain situation. Would people ever fly again? Would businesses be wiped out for an inability to travel? How would we sell our product? How would we travel to meet our customers? Would our business end?
While I made decisions each day to keep our people safe and moving forward, I also made lists and imagined a future in which our business was thriving. I reasoned with myself and our team that businesses would indeed want to use our software to manage all of their healthcare and company benefits, and perhaps even more so as a result of the risk in traveling to communicate those benefits in person. We did survive that extreme moment, and we went on to thrive, as many of the things we imagined did indeed come true.
Give Yourself Some Flexibility
Develop some plans that allow you to take a few different paths. How can you break down your streams of work to smaller segments so that your people can do them in various locations and at various times.
In times of calm and certainty, we tune our businesses for efficiency and perfection. We look for every little step that can be optimized and spend large amounts of time searching for every speck of process dust to be wiped away.
In times of uncertainty, we do not want to be sloppy; however, as a leader you have to realize the aim of your focus has shifted. You are not optimizing; you are protecting. You are protecting your people. That may mean things become less efficient for the short term.
You may have to face some extreme financial realities as you navigate uncharted territory. You may have to significantly reduce your expenses to keep your business viable. This may include relying on government support for your people and your business. If so, it is paramount that you include your people in the process and be transparent and candid with them. They also need to make their own decisions, and if their income or job is going to be affected, they need to understand why, for how long, and what their support options are.
You will not be able to avoid financial pain in your business. Even with the best of intentions and plans, uncertainty has a way of humbling all management teams. What you are seeking to do is do the best for your people and remain flexible to adapt so that you get to the other side of the choppy waters.
Once you are through this you will have ample time to put things back together and fine tune your processes. Right now, focus on communicating with everyone who is in and connected to your business. As Jack Welch advised, “Communicate until you puke.”
Remind Yourself of How Your Business Behaves Under Pressure
Strangely, my business did best in difficult economic periods. People pulled together and their best ideas and work came forward.
We may have thrived because our software was used to manage healthcare benefits and company benefits, which were highlighted during difficult times. It may also have been that regardless of the economic swings, health benefits continued to be offered and utilized, thus the need for our software was uninterrupted.
Your business will have its own lens through which to view uncertain macro events. My guess is that if you are in the SaaS (software as a service) space you are radically transforming an old way of doing some aspect of business, and therefore you provide flexibility and speed to those processes for your customers. Flexibility and speed are things needed by businesses even more so in times of stress.
My point here is that you need to provide your team with some translation of what the general news stories are saying and how things are going to actually impact your business. I recently met with two founders of a telemedicine SaaS platform. They are experiencing exponential demand for their product as doctors rush to implement video consults. They are in perhaps the biggest wave of growth they will ever see. They would translate the news of today differently than most other businesses.
After 9/11 and through 2008/2009 I spent a lot of time talking to our customers and then translating what I was hearing to our associates. I held small group meetings and large group meetings; I wrote emails and made short videos constantly through those times. I used every possible mode of communication to keep every associate and customer connected. I took Jack seriously, I communicated until I lost my voice and then I kept on communicating. The key is to communicate specifically about your people and your business.
It’s All About the People
The greater the uncertainty, the more certain you must be about taking care of your people. It is the people in and around your business who will figure this out with you. Dive in there with them and face the uncertainty together. Form a collective mind that can think through scenarios, split work into smaller units, and above all adapt together.
Your business will most likely survive. And when it does, if handled properly, this will be a source of future strength among your people.