We learn less when a business is going well than when it’s not. So the last five years have been a real education. Difficult trading conditions have taken their toll on many businesses. Some have come through fitter, others still have cracks in their walls. Now it’s a question of capturing what we’ve learned.
It’s like coming into port in a yacht with battered sails: you’ve made it to a safe haven but you’re not ready for another voyage. So how do you rebuild your confidence and resilience?
First, it is critical to try and restore calm, starting with yourself. Harder times have required managers to become business leaders. And the most effective type of leader is one who is self-aware. Values will have been tested more than ever before. What is needed now is authenticity, leaders who live their values and communicate the current situation honestly.
The practice of meditation or ‘mindfulness’ can help. Now commonplace in global organisations, it calms the mind, brings some peace and allows you to go into ‘sleep setting’ for a short period. It’s not a fad and it’s not just useful in crisis situations.
Carry out a health-check among your senior executives. The stress of the past few years has been enormous. Nutrition, fitness, and clarity of thinking may have become compromised. Different people will need different remedies: some may need some time off, others may need to invest in developing new skills. This may lead to bigger questions. Are they in the right business, do they need help – or a replacement?
Do the same for the wider team. Identify your assets and liabilities. Look at their health and wellbeing, whether they are still committed and what competencies and skills you need them to have to revive the business. The overriding issue is battle fatigue. People have never worked so hard for so little return. So you need to repair and restore confidence. People won’t stay if they dislike the culture or how they are being treated.
Now, more than ever, small acts of appreciation matter — handwritten notes, praise in the moment, suggestions as to how someone might re-charge, coffees or meals together.
Focus on building people’s strengths and talents. This shows your commitment to their development. And don’t abandon your sense of humour: laughter is a great way of relieving tension.
Give your product or service a ‘deep dive’ review. Consider what you do as an organisation. Is it fit for purpose right now? Is the business model you had going into the recession going to be able to pull you out it into growth or has it become a millstone round your neck? The three critical elements you need to grow any business are ideas, people and cash. Are your ideas and people up to scratch? What do you need to change? And if you do identify areas to change, what (if anything) is stopping you from doing so?
Look at your business development pipeline. The way we win business has changed radically, largely thanks to the internet and social media. Companies that are not up to speed digitally won’t exist for much longer, so make sure the business is using all the technological tools it can to build momentum. You may require new skills to do this, either hiring in or reaching outside to agencies, advisers or to other experts.
Take a look at your processes and infrastructure. These may be cumbersome and costly. Can you find ways to streamline them to better support your product or service? I wouldn’t look at pricing (or discounting), but instead identify where you can add value and improve what you’re doing for customers.
The same goes for overheads: if you still have any fat, trim it, but you’ve probably done that already. Instead, look at margins (which were hammered during the downturn) and what you can do to improve them.
Use your networks. Now is the time to call on peer support, coaches and group learning. Exchanging notes on what has helped you – or simply talking to fellow business leaders in the same boat –is an invaluable way to gain a fresh perspective and new knowledge.
There’s one last question some leaders may need to ask themselves. Are you the right person to lead the revival? I’ve seen CEOs who like a fight. Like Churchill, they are good wartime leaders. But the leader who was able to win the war may not be able to build the peace. This can be a real problem if the ‘hero mentality’ sets in. So ask yourself – honestly – you may have brought the company through dark period, but are you the right person to grow it now?
Andrew Morris is CEO of the Academy for Chief Executives.