Small business owners are still scrambling to respond to the pandemic. So far, we’ve been guided by whether our business is essential or nonessential, social distancing etiquette and gut instinct. As a small business owner, I share this pain.
As shutdown rules are eased, gut instinct and hope won’t suffice for long. Every firm needs an action plan to maintain resilience and business continuity as we transition to whatever is next.
No matter your industry, becoming more resilient begins with four essential steps.
The four steps are:
• Determine your business purpose.
• Decide to resume, renovate or innovate your services and products.
• Prioritize stakeholders and communicate with each audience to ensure a trust relationship.
• Address new workforce and workplace requirements.
Build on these steps to tailor actions to meet your unique circumstances.
Purpose is the core reason you are in business and should influence every decision. It can be described in either linear or transformative terms.
Suppose a company makes storm doors and windows. A linear definition of purpose might be: We provide customers with market-leading window and door products that reduce energy loss. As a result, the company is apt to focus on technology to produce ever more efficient windows and doors.
A transformative outlook may lead the company to define its purpose in helping people live and work in safety and comfort. This conveys deeper meaning, encourages innovation, and can influence the firm’s effect on human lives.
Either approach is acceptable, but the choice matters because purpose has such strong influence on product and market strategies. Here’s an illustration:
Consumer research from April-May indicates people who’ve lost income are committed to cost-cutting while those who’ve worked from home for months want to make home improvements. A window and door maker guided by a linear statement of purpose will capitalize on these trends.
Conversely, a transformative statement of purpose may lead the company to also manufacture acrylic face shields for health-care workers and sneeze guards for stores, factories and other facilities. In this scenario, the company’s strategy is to align itself with the most essential industry sectors.
When defining your firm’s purpose, be guided in part by your leadership style, the company’s cultural DNA, and stakeholders’ needs or expectations.
“Stakeholders” usually refers to customers, employees, shareholders, suppliers and regulators. In 2001, singer Toby Keith had a hit tune, “I Wanna Talk About Me.” Today the song title speaks for your stakeholders and mine. It’s critically important to identify what each stakeholder audience wants and frame your messages to address their concerns.
If such tightly targeted communication seems daunting, remember a few key facts: Like you, stakeholders are hungry for reliable information to regain their footing. You are your company’s most qualified spokesperson. You probably went into the pandemic possessing good trust relationships with stakeholders. In our reputation economy, trust may be our most valuable asset.
Play to your strengths by communicating openly and honestly about your capacity to meet stakeholder needs.
Even if the news isn’t what stakeholders hope to hear, they almost certainly will appreciate the facts. To paraphrase one of my early mentors, honesty is to relationships as a good gravy is to home cooking: both compensate for other shortcomings.
It’s always useful to prioritize stakeholders and communicate accordingly. During a pandemic, there are several reasons to make employees your first priority. Unlike most disasters, the pandemic leaves property unscathed but harms people–your people. Employees may be eager to work, but they bring with them a boatload of stress, distractions and questions. Meet employees where they are in order to lead them where they need to be.
Employees need honesty and transparency, reassurances to the extent you can give them, and guidance on their role in a changing workplace.
For employees, the CEO is the only authoritative messenger on big-picture topics of purpose, vision, personnel policies and compensation structures. Their immediate supervisor should communicate on-the-job expectations, because the supervisor knows what the work entails. These roles should never be delegated.
Communicate well, and employees almost certainly will fulfill your commitments to other stakeholders.
Workforce and workplace considerations vary by company: Will some or all employees work remotely? Will shifts be staggered to ensure safe distancing? Will employees be tested? Will they be cross-trained to improve resilience during future outbreaks? Will vendors and customers be welcome onsite? Will equipment or desks be moved or shielded to combat transmission? What about compensation and sick leave?
These are a few of the questions owners are addressing, often with guidance from CDC, OSHA, industry associations and other reliable sources.
None of us can determine what the “new normal” will be like or predict its arrival. We can exert considerable control over our firm’s transition from its current state to its “next normal.” Keep in mind we are likely to experience several next normals en route to the new normal.
Through it all, be stubborn about purpose, vision and goals, but be open-minded and flexible about the best ways to achieve outcomes. Be agile and alert to shifting circumstances. As one of my clients says, “Do your best while you find a way to do better.”
Expect mistakes; analyze, acknowledge, and learn from them. Celebrate progress toward the next normal. Put employees first among stakeholders. Communicate candidly and often; if in doubt, over-communicate.
Earn trust with clear messages and visible actions. Listen and show empathy. Move on to your next normal. I hope to meet you there.
Ted Wagnon of Little Rock is Managing Director of Wagnon Strategies, LLC, a communication and continuity consultancy. He has completed FEMA training in pandemic planning and is a Certified Crisis Management and Communication Professional.
Editorial on 05/31/2020