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COVID Clarity: Business Lessons Learned During Uncertain Times

Part One of a Three-part Series

A business owner recently related his experience navigating his company through challenges he never foresaw. The past months, he said, have taught him a lot about leading his people, managing finances, ways of connecting to customers and importantly, learning about himself as a business leader.

He had been forced to confront tough issues he previously avoided or did not think were important, such as deciding which employees to keep, furlough or lay off. During our talk, all I could feel was empathy. He put a human face to the challenge. As a business advisor, and hearing many such accounts, I’ve come to an even greater appreciation for the recent struggles of small and middle market business owners.

As corporate leaders you’ve had to stretch yourselves beyond your expectations. Business continuity planners could never have conjured up such a scenario. Out of a sheer need to find a path forward, you’ve been forced to innovate and to make difficult decisions. The end result has been a clarity around running your business: Let’s call it COVID Clarity – key realizations borne out of this experience.

This three-part series will take a dive into key learning and how you can continue to run your business with the aim of restoration and growth. Each article will take a look at a different lesson:

  1. Our people are our most important asset, especially in challenging times
  2. Instituting financial and operational controls is not only smart business, it is imperative
  3. Innovation is critical for finding market and customer opportunities to ensure sustainability

Leading your People

Perhaps the most challenging decision you’ve had to make is deciding the employment status of your people. If you’ve lost sleep, you’re not alone. This experience has taught you the deep effect your decisions have on your employees: How will they pay their mortgage, car payments and basic needs, such as health care, if no longer employed? For many business owners, people have become more than a box on an organizational chart – they’ve become your partners in the future of your business.

Paul, the owner of a home access solutions business for individuals with limited mobility, shared his biggest lesson learned these past months: “People, People, People, I learned the importance of having the right team of capable and adaptable employees.” With Paul’s example in mind, let’s take a look at four COVID Clarity lessons related to leading your people.

COVID Clarity – We need to better evaluate the performance of our people: Differentiating performance levels of your people helps you to make those tough decisions around employee retention. Too many small and middle market businesses do not spend the time as a management team calibrating and discerning performance. Employee evaluations need to be in writing, with use of consistent performance-based language, such as “Exceeds High Expectations,” “Meets Expectations,” or “Does Not Meet Expectations” for different job categories. Doing so will help you to make future employment decisions with greater confidence, consistently across your company.

COVID Clarity – Our senior management team is not fully aligned: A lack of alignment within your management team has risen to the top of the list of challenges. This lack of coordination leads to frustration, emotion and unclear direction for your employees. We find that the best way of restoring alignment is to set common goals that each manager is responsible for achieving. How we are measured dictates how we work together. Operate as a team to align management roles and functioning to support common objectives.

COVID Clarity – My employees are unsure of their role at times: Since many of your employees have found themselves in unfamiliar functions and working remotely, ensure each person is clear on the What, Why and How to get their work done right. Do not assume they know. With so many people working remotely, we might think they know – and they might think they know – yet, we have learned that too many employees wake up each day unclear of their focus and core responsibilities, because of changes during the past months. Clarify!

COVID Clarity – I am not spending the right quality of time with my people: Spending time with your people matters! I understand that you’ve been in continual contact with them. Yet, most of your interactions have likely been related to core job tasks, projects and solving challenges. We have gotten away from the informal interactions that connect us to our people and build trust and belief in your leadership. It is time to “plan” for “unplanned conversations.”  Dedicate time with each key manager and employee to hold discussions on: “How can I help you?”  From these planned conversations, you will better understand the emotional tenor of your people. If possible, meet in person taking into account appropriate COVID precautions. Also, your people are a wealth of information about what they are seeing and learning within the company and in the market. Asking your people their opinion and gaining their input will help them know that they’re part of the solution, and that is motivating.

Recently, a CFO of a construction company confided in me that since March every interaction with her financial manager was about a particular job function. Not a single time did they get together in-person or talk on the phone about how the manager was doing. The CFO felt as though she was not connecting with her employee – perhaps losing the thread that previously united them. She decided to schedule time in person to sit and just talk – like they did naturally in the office almost each day. In just one interaction, the CFO learned a few things that would have gone undiscovered had she relied only on email and video communications. Now, that’s strong leadership.

We have been, and will continue to be, on an unprecedented journey. Understanding business realities and accepting lessons learned, which we call COVID CLARITY, is essential to move your business from crisis containment to sustainability, and then to further growth.

In the next article in this series, we will focus on lessons learned and best practices for addressing financial challenges.

About the Author

Larry Prince is the CEO of PrinceLeadershipTM, a New Jersey-based business consultancy that works with small and middle market companies to create growth and sustainability.

To access more business news, visit NJB News Now.

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