Leading in a crisis.

The most important things you can do

There is no doubt that the weeks and months ahead are going to be very difficult: for a lot of people, for most businesses, and for every business leader.

Some of the sectors that will be hit are obvious, and many are already reeling from the impact. Food retailers, delivery and online businesses are facing huge surges in demand while having to build serious contingencies for staff, both to protect them and to mitigate the impact of their absence.

Consumer-facing businesses in other areas of retail, in leisure, hospitality, events and transportation, are already seeing revenues fall off a cliff, and having to close operations to reduce the rate of cash-burn. But downstream from all of those, is a huge supply chain of B2B businesses who will very soon feel the knock-on impact through cancellations, late payments and customer failures.

Steps will be taken by governments and banks, both central and local, and some of those cash-flow problems will be resolved, or at least put off for a while. And businesses that can rapidly plug into those relief systems and who have the headspace to make smart decisions, that not only address the present crisis, but that also stay focused on the future, will emerge fittest and best prepared for a rapid recovery.

The differentiator within every industry, between those who go under, those who survive, and those who come out the other side ready to thrive, will be one thing: leadership. This is a time for all leaders to step up. To lead their businesses and their people, visibly, proactively, compassionately and decisively.

This is not the time for leaders to “get busy doing”. You need to “get busy leading”.

Over the coming months, all four of your key stakeholder groups: employees, customers, suppliers and investors, will need care and attention; all four will need proactive communication and engagement. This is now the number one job of leaders – everything else is delegable.

But make no mistake, the order in which I’ve written them is the order of priority; no ifs or buts.

Getting and keeping the best people has been the greatest ongoing challenge for almost every business I’ve worked with. Once the implications of Coronavirus wash through, it will be your people who get everything back on track: customers, supply chains, financial returns. Without them you will see no recovery, and if you’re not there for your people when they need you most, don’t expect them to be there for you when you need them back.

One of the most valuable things a leadership group can do right now, is to work out how to keep its people engaged and productive in different ways when they can no longer do the things they’re employed to do. Self-isolation is not the same as incapacitation. They can still contribute, even if its part-time. And to keep them engaged, you need to unlock that capacity and focus it on different things: whether it’s contingency work for today; or research, innovation and strategic problem-solving for the future – a future that will look different to the past.

Some things will return to normal: people will start going out again, to eat, socialise, travel. But some old paradigms of behaviour will be permanently changed. Physical attendance for shoppers, film lovers, office workers and university students may go the way of the horse and cart. Office buildings, shops, cinemas and lecture theatres, may no longer be required by a public that’s learned how to live without them.

What are the potentially permanent shifts in human behaviour that could affect your business?

As I write, thousands of small business owners and consultants are publishing advice about how best to work from home. All of that is valuable. But what’s more valuable is working out what all those home-workers should be working on. How much headspace are you putting into that?