By Mark D. Nevins, Ph.D.
My coaching and advisory practice focuses on C-suite executives in large companies such as Moody’s, Anheuser Busch InBev, NBC-Universal, and American Express. I also work with CEOs of high-growth companies like Kaseya. I’ve recently been speaking and writing a fair amount about what leaders should be doing to stay on track and help their businesses survive the COVID-19 crisis, for example in my regular Forbes column.
But in a recent conversation with Fred Voccola, CEO of Kaseya on this, he challenged me: “You yourself run a small business — a boutique consulting firm. Take off those business school kid gloves: What blunt advice would you give to leaders at companies like the MSPs and small and midsize businesses Kaseya serves?”
My best advice is this: The skill or characteristic you need most right now as a leader is resilience. Resilient leaders:
- Are able to pick themselves up when they fall down or get knocked down
- Look at mistakes or failures as opportunities to learn and get better
- Are motivated by a desire to learn and grow
- Are tenacious and resourceful in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles
- Demonstrate what I call “skeptical optimism” — projecting confidence that everything will be fine in the long term, while bracing themselves for unexpected challenges any single moment may bring
What’s most difficult about our current situation is that we don’t feel like we’re in control, and we don’t — and can’t — know how things will play out. Following are six specific things I am seeing resilient leaders of small businesses doing right now. These things are in your control. Doing them will make you feel more in control. And if you commit to these things you’ll increase your chances to drive the best possible outcomes for your business, customers, and employees.
- Protect the Asset. In case it’s not clear, you are the asset. There’s only one of you, and your people and customers need you. Get enough sleep. Give yourself time and space to think about the big picture in a proactive and strategic way. Eat healthy and get your exercise, even if it’s just a long walk. And give yourself a real break once in a while. (While I’ve been available to clients pretty much 24/7, I’ve kept my promise to my family that we’d watch a movie over dinner every night.)
- Focus on the Important. In the constant battle between the urgent and the important, the urgent tends to win out during a crisis. However, you can’t let yourself get so wrapped up in the daily issues that you fail to focus on what needs to be done to keep the business moving forward. You started 2020 with a strategic plan that has almost certainly not played out. Revisit that plan and ask: What can and must we still do? What should we not do — or not do right now? Are there things that we should dump altogether, and are there opportunities we can take advantage of given this new reality? Can we offer new products or services, take market share from our competitors, or lock customers in for the long term by treating them right?
- Communicate Clearly and Deliberately, with both Honesty and Compassion. In times of crisis, your communication is the glue that holds everything together. Choose your messages carefully: tactical directions for the short term, renewed vision for the long term, reassurances for worried staff, and critical information that people need to do their jobs. You may find that you need to repeat yourself more than usual as your team’s own stress makes them more distracted and “needier” than usual. Be compassionate and remember that every single one of your customers and employees is dealing with his or her own personal and family challenges. Take the time to listen to all of your most important stakeholders, internally and externally. Things are changing a mile a minute, and if you stop listening, you may find yourself making tomorrow’s decisions with yesterday’s data. Finally, be honest and authentic. Your people will not trust you if you don’t tell it like it is. If you don’t know something, it’s OK to say you don’t know.
- Get Tough and Lead from the Front. Be visible and be decisive. Crises can create confusion or clarity — opt for clarity. Define what you need to achieve to keep the business running, establish a plan to achieve that, and execute with discipline and extreme attention. Even if you’re not 100 percent correct, execution and adaptation yield better results than analysis-paralysis. Don’t get locked into predisposed positions, assumptions, or habits: Doing the same things you were doing a month ago is a recipe for disaster. At the same time, get tough. Shut off the social media and read real news to inform yourself about the realties for the economy and your industry. Be willing to make tough decisions. Chop dead wood — now is the time to move on non-performers or people who aren’t on board. Fewer good people will drive better results with a better attitude. Show that you are holding yourself and your senior leaders to even higher standards than you’re holding everyone else.
- Embrace Your Mistakes. Nobody is perfect, and if you expect perfection you’ll be disappointed. My college roommate was a cornerback on his high school football team, and 35 years ago he confided in me that that experience taught him one of his greatest life lessons: “Every once in a while you’re going to get burned for a touchdown. But if you don’t learn from it quickly and then shake it off just as quickly, you’re going to get burned on the next play as well.” This point is the core of resilience. Without mistakes, there can be no innovation. Without failure, there can be no success. When things don’t work out the way you planned, ask yourself: “what can I learn from this?”
- Keep the Faith and Go the Distance. For many of us, it’s difficult to see what the future will hold for our businesses. Is the light at the end of the tunnel really just an oncoming train? Despite the uncertainty of the near term, there is hope and promise in the long term. Use this crisis to challenge assumptions, drive transformational change, and when needed, pivot to meet the market where it needs you to be.
Following from No. 6 above, these are unprecedented times, bringing disruption to all and opportunity for those who are ready to seize it. I believe the next few months are going to present incredible opportunities to small businesses like MSPs, provided they do the right things the right way.
You are the one who can ensure those right things are done. While some people may naturally have more “grit” than others, resilience can be developed and learned. As the great teacher Warren Bennis observed, many of the best leaders can point to “crucibles” that formed them — moments that seemed impossible yet forged them into the leaders they often didn’t even know they could be. Could this COVID-19 crisis be the “crucible” that defines you?
Mark D. Nevins, Ph.D. is a leadership advisor and coach who helps CEOs and other senior executives navigate through critical “inflection points” in their careers and businesses. In his recent book, What Happens Now? Reinvent Yourself as a Leader Before Your Business Outruns You, he draws on decades of experience to provide leaders with insights to achieve success in an ever-changing world.