This is Part 2 of an article series covering COVID-19's Impact on Entrepreneurs. The first article covered the initial ripple effects of the coronavirus, scenario planning and your three main options for your business. Click here to read the first article.
Every entrepreneur innately understands crisis.
We’re used to the chaos, the uncertainty, and the necessary experimentation/pivoting that comes along with it. We see opportunity; we always see opportunity. You might even say that we enjoy it. But your employees are not you. Because while you know what it might take to get through the coronavirus, you can’t do it alone. So this next phase is really about leadership in the face of crisis: what it means and how to approach it.
I’m young and lucky enough to say that I’ve never experienced a global crisis as a business owner before… but my first-ever global crisis? That was in the first days of the first semester of my first year at university: September 11th, 2001.
While it may be strange to associate geopolitical acts of terrorism to a viral outbreak, it does feel vaguely similar; at least in terms of the emotional experience. As I caught up with other entrepreneurial friends, we tried to make sense of this coronavirus chaos, trying to relate it to whatever was familiar. 9/11 was the closest “event” that we could come up with.
So in an effort to empathize with our younger team-members, it feels unfortunately useful to recall that event and the confusion that followed: How did I feel back then? How might they be feeling in all this now?
Before the prolonged sense of unease, the irrational feeling of nationalism, and the swirling chaos of death in some unknown distant land, there were the actual day’s events...
On that Tuesday, September 11th, I woke up early, in a daze, by my mother’s sudden phone call… my parents worked in New York City and I was near DC. She said something about how we were under attack: a plane, a skyscraper (two skyscrapers?), and then there was the absolute desperation for each other to get to safety. It was an act of such shock and intensity; we were all dumbfounded.
But being a “good” student in my first weeks of university, I actually just went to class. Thank god it was in Professor Winston's COMM101 class. The lecture hall was dark, but he was there. We walked in, sat down and the TV was playing the background. We didn’t even really know each other yet, but he was calm and allowed us to ask questions. We had so many. He answered what he could, discussed things for a bit and eventually, we went back to our dorms.
That was it and I’m forever grateful for Professor Winston’s leadership. He was there. He listened and answered our questions. As simple as that was, it was more than enough for the moment. Now, in our current situation with coronavirus and its effects rippling through our society and the economy, this is the process that I used with my team and also what I’m inviting for other entrepreneurs to adapt with theirs employees.
1) Your People Need You
Your employees (like everyone else) are dealing with a lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt. It may be about their safety, their job security, or about the broader economic state in general. Whatever it is, make sure you give them a space to vent and voice their concerns. Where are their hearts? Where are their minds?
A lot of people might seem irrational, but once you talk to them you, you actually might start to understand where they're coming from. It's 15 minutes well invested. Once you have a handle on their emotional state, then you have a foundation to build on... you'll have established a connection to work from.
2) What does all this mean?
Help your people make sense of everything. Share what you're seeing because, as the founder and an executive, you have a more comprehensive point of view on the business. What do the lockdowns mean for our business? What happens if there's a disruptions to the supply chain? Will they still need to come into the office? Why?
Help them understand what these changes might mean for our business, what it might mean for their roles, and how it might affect them. Start to connect the dots for them, with them. They may have their own interpretations (or fears), but again, help them zoom out to see the bigger picture, and their place in this larger context. This sense-making will help them prepare.
3) What are your expectations?
One entrepreneur-friend I talked to had his revenue dropped to zero overnight due to the crisis. Still, he chose to disclose this with his team, very early on, reached out to explain to each of them individually the reality of the situation and its impact to their business in Shanghai.
Because of this openness, they understood the existential threat that was upon the business and decided, as a team, to collectively take a pay cut. I cannot imagine that being possible without the trust and goodwill built up by being transparent. With all the uncertainty already, there's no value in secrecy at times and when things do get back to normal, you don't want to start re-building connections then. At the end of the day, we will have long careers. Share your expectations openly.
4) Where is the silver lining?
As we are better equipped to find opportunities amidst the chaos, point out the silver-lining for your team. Give them a sense of when you think the light at the end of the tunnel will be appearing… where better prospects might be and where to direct our energy towards. Be optimistic, but not delusional.
This is exactly where the entrepreneur in you is most valuable. We see options. We create options. And with all this uncertainty, we will need that positive flexibility, as the crisis continues to unfold over the next few months.
As a whole, this process may make you feel a bit vulnerable. Indeed, this is a lot more difficult than the calculations and decision making proposed in my first article. This difficulty is exactly why it is necessary: this is the job of a leader. As entrepreneurs we much prefer taking action, making the sale... but empathetically listening and sense-making, that's what your people really need, so please channel your inner Professor Winston -- whoever that was for you.
Because really, I hope that we’re more than just entrepreneurs out there to make a profit, but leaders in our community. Each day the news seems to get worse.
This is and will continue to be a tough time for everyone, and the only way we’ll get through this is together. Let's make great.
For Part 1: click here.
Brian is the CEO of Let's Make Great! a creativity consultancy that helps multinational companies to develop new products, new services and new brands through co-creation workshops and strategic consulting.