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COVID-19: Business Survival Tips for Leaders

In the two weeks since this blog covered COVID-19, the virus’ impact on our global economy, way of working, living and socialising has been profound. Each day there are new announcements, new counts, new once-in-a-lifetime measures and actions being taken by industry and government to try and cope with onslaughts of demand, illness, remoteness. Some industries will be decimated by the effects, while the flow-on impacts to other industries remain largely unknown. Things will be very tough for at least a few months, bad for at least six months, and some are saying, will take ten years to recover.

In these times, our focus tends to be on the immediate: how to get people working safely, either at home if they can, or in safe working environments if that is necessary; how to communicate with our teams, customers, partners about what we are doing; how to plan for the inevitable or already experienced downturn in business, productivity, and confidence. 

Those of us old enough to remember 2007’s GFC might draw parallels with the current crisis. It’s only natural to seek to draw from past experience at times like this. This crisis is so different in so many ways: breadth, scale, speed, cause. The GFC was brought about by financial system collapse; now those financial systems, made more resilient as a result of post-GFC measures, will be sorely tested. This is not the same crisis, but some of the same basics still apply. 

As business owners and leaders, many of us will be facing what feels like an unending onslaught of mini-crises each day. Predicting the order and scale is pointless, you are literally running from one situation to the next. I don’t profess to have answers, but I can make suggestions based on past experience – things to help focus and prioritise your management marathon.

Keep communicating. Your people need to know what’s going on, a few times a day if not daily. Don’t let days go by without an update. Personal fear of someone’s job future takes away their productivity and reliability immediately. Information gaps foment rumour and rapid decay in morale. Make sure the comms are consistent, up-beat (to the extent they can be), accurate and authoritative. Deliver meaningful information. Shareholders & investors, customers, partners all need to know how you’re tracking, so reach out to them when you can. Ideally, before they call you.

Make bold decisions, quickly. Now is not the time to crowd-source. It’s the time to be decisive, often with limited information. Back yourself to make the right decisions in a fast-moving environment, and stand by them, unless the evidence is showing a bad choice. If that happens, be ready to backtrack and go in a new direction, quickly. To help the cadence of decision-making, consider building a “war room” – whether physical or virtual – and nominate a set time each day – or a few times a day – to bring a leadership team together and cover things off and move onto the next.

Involve the leadership team. While the decisions will ultimately be the responsibility of the CEO and board, the people best-placed to have the inside information on what’s happening are those managers closest to the front lines. This is a chance for them to help you, and to step up as part of their own leadership journey. Don’t be afraid to lean on them, and involve them in the communication flow so they know what’s going out before they get questions from team members while unprepared to answer them.

Hang onto people. Many industries are facing catastrophic job losses in the near term. When things recover, and they surely will, those that still have good people with knowledge of the industry and systems will be able to get back on their feet quickly. Consider ways you can keep people, for as long as possible. Consider reducing workforces to part-time, encouraging the taking of all forms of leave, and where it’s available to you, taking advantage of government help. The team that survives together will be so much stronger – you will be able to rely on each other to achieve greatness in times to come.

Cash is king. It’s a basic of business, but if you run out of cash, it’s over. Strong cash management and planning is a key survival focus right now. Working out where the cash is coming from, and going to on a weekly, if not daily basis will arm you with the best decision-making information. Seek extended payment terms from suppliers if you can; chase up long-running debts now. Know when you expect to reach critical cash low water marks and what decisions you’ll have to make when you do.

Balance cost-cutting priorities with opportunity. There will be many things you can cut from the bottom line of your business. The key will be not cutting all of those which benefit the medium and long term – learning & development, strategy, product development, planning. A shutters-down approach is sometimes called for in order to survive, but keeping a side window open to the world of future opportunity is key. External consultants will be hard to justify, but a flexible approach to working with them in a minimal way could keep your business-building efforts warm and ready to ramp when the going gets better. They may be in a position to be very flexible as they manage their own business challenges.

Support each other. Your peers in the leadership team, your board, and advisers are a strong source of confidential advice and support right now. Use them; a strong leadership trait is knowing when to ask for help. Peers in your industry going through similar problems can go from fierce competitors to strong allies in a single phone call – don’t be afraid to reach out and compare notes, and support one another.

Take care of you. You’re facing a marathon of tough decisions in a worsening, fast-changing environment. As a business owner, you may be watching your livelihood and source of future family wealth evaporate before your eyes. It’s a hard thing to do, but try and take short breaks, stay well and get rest if you can. Decisions made when you are in bad shape could be bad for business or the team. Family and friends will want to help, so talk with them, and lean on them for support.

This is a time and circumstance not faced by many of us. The best you can do is your best; keeping focused on these things may make things a little easier.

Anthony Woodward is the former CEO and co-founder of Bulletproof, and the founder and CEO of Accelera Group.