Today I share my thoughts on how to lead strong in times of crisis. I hope this is helpful for you, especially if you have been struggling in the face of COVID-19. I’ve been in business now for over 42 years, and have experienced a couple of major bumps in the road on my journey. These trails were different than our current COVID-19 pandemic in some ways, but the impact on leadership had a lot of similar characteristics. Hopefully, the lessons learned via the school of hard knocks can give you some ideas and encouragement as you navigate your way through our current situation.
I began my farming career in 1977 as a young kid with no money and a new bride. We came back to a rented farm and began our operation with a loan from the bank (co-signed by my dad) and a whole lot of help from family. My banker, who was a personal friend of my dad’s (or I would have never gotten a loan), insisted that I take out federal crop insurance to protect their investment. My dad didn’t see any need; but my banker insisted, so I signed up and paid the premium. This was one of the few times in which listening to my father would have been wrong. Listening to an external expert saved my bacon.
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That year, we experienced a significant drought. My corn crop yielded a mere 7 bushel per acre and the beans were just under 20. Both were disastrous and, without insurance, would have ended my farming career. The insurance payment allowed us to cover our loan payment and continue the farming business, of which we are still a part of today. I learned the value of expert resources.
In 1999, there was one thing on everyone’s mind—Y2K. As a technology company CEO, I saw opportunity and began to gear up for the “greatest opportunity in IT history.” We hired staff to get ready, and by the second half of 1999 had grown to 36 people serving small and medium businesses in southwest Iowa. It was a very busy period in my life, and my time was spent selling and uncovering opportunities rather than truly watching the company and doing my job as CEO. I thought there would be time for that after we got through the event. So, we were spending money and buying equipment and preparing for a fantastic future.
December 31 came and went, and all the predictions of how much work there would be did not materialize. In fact, Y2K missed Iowa completely from what we could tell. By April, we were in way over our heads financially and had over 750K worth of inventory on our shelves. My bank called me in for a very frank discussion and forced me to reduce inventory and staff. That was a painful experience on both fronts. We reduced headcount by a third and sold almost all that inventory on eBay over a period of months, all at a loss. However, those two decisions saved the company and allowed us to begin the process of rebuilding a strong balance sheet.
In 2007-2008 we hit another major hurdle with the recession. We were in the middle of our mergers and acquisitions (M&A) run to grow what then had transitioned to become Heartland Technology Solutions (HTS). We had diversified our markets and expanded our leadership team to include a very experienced and talented set of leaders. It was a challenging period, but we were able to leverage learnings from previous difficult times and guide the company through the journey without significant disruption to our business. We had built a strong balance sheet. This enabled us to weather the financial storm and actually come out of those few years stronger and prepared to continue our growth plans.
In 2011, it became obvious that we needed to increase the speed of our pivot from being a VAR (value-added reseller) to an MSP (managed service provider). We had started that journey a few years earlier and made some progress, but it wasn’t happening nearly quick enough to keep up with the changing marketplace. So we made the decision to restructure the entire company and jump curves to become a service led organization. There were lots of bumps and we lost customers and colleagues as a result, but it helped position us for exit at the end of 2012.
There are plenty of things a leader must do in time of crisis. I list a dozen below, but know that you can only execute on one or two at a time. So read the list, have an honest conversation with the person in the mirror, and pick one or two to begin with. As you make progress, you can pick a couple more and continue to expand your leadership to be a difference for your followers!
From my experiences and mistakes, I’ve reflected on what we need to do in order to lead strong when things are stressful and even out of control:
1. Take care of yourself
We’ve all heard it 1000 times. If there is a loss in cabin pressure, we need to put on our own mask before assisting someone else. The bottom line is we cannot lead if we are not healthy and strong. Many entrepreneurial leaders believe they are super human. They’ve carried the company on their back for years, but that strength only goes so far. We can’t continue to do it on our own without taking care of ourselves. Stress can kill you. We must provide some rest and relief to set ourselves free from a consistently stressful and connected environment. That means:
- Quiet time/solitude
- Scheduled escape from electronics and digital medium
- Regular routine
- Family interaction
- Getting away
2. Lean on your team
Unless you are a micro business, you have other people in your organization. My experience is that people step up when the going gets tough, if we let them. If you’re being a super human action figure and trying to solve the world’s problems on your own, they can only stand back and watch. But if you bring them into the discussion, planning, and execution, even those you wonder about will likely show far more value than you even knew they were capable of.
3. Plan and prepare ahead of taking action
It is important to plan ahead. The worst decisions are made when emotions direct the outcome. It is critical that we spend time planning, even if only days or hours, ahead of important business changing decisions. The best thing we can do is spend time with our leadership team talking through ‘what if’ scenarios before they need to be executed. We should have a RIF list (reduction in force) created around facts, not emotion. If it is done under duress, every leader will likely protect those who report to them rather than seeing the process through their overall value to the company. You need to take as much emotion out of the decision-making process as possible, and that happens by planning and preparing before action needs to occur. It is also important to understand the difference between cost containment and cost cutting. Too many people over-react and go straight to cost cutting with no thought as to how that effects their revenue picture and especially how they come out of the situation. Contain first, then cut sooner than later if things are going poorly. Plan for both now.
4. Over communicate again and again
Without a doubt, communication is the Achilles heel of leadership. Far too many leaders think their teams and clients will be able to figure out what they need to know somehow through osmosis or some supernatural version of ESP. It just doesn’t happen. If we don’t communicate, people don’t know truth. And in the absence of information, people make things up to fill the void and the story they tell themselves will almost always be worse than the truth. When people are under stress and anxiety, clarity of information is essential at the very front end so information is not misconstrued.
5. Stay connected to your personal ideals
When people try to check part of their identity at the door when they enter the workplace, they lose a critical part of who they are and are far less able to lead well. Whether it’s your personal ideals, your religion, or even just your personal practices to stay positive (i.e. yoga, meditation, etc.) don’t lose the ideals and standards you hold yourself to in the midst of a crisis.
6. Leverage the tools of the trade
When times are good we often are all so busy we don’t slow down and really understand each other. But when there is stress and uncertainty, different personalities respond differently and we have to be sure to connect with all kinds of people. A leader takes responsibility to meet people where they are and communicate in the way they understand. It is not leadership to expect those you lead to adapt to your style. It’s up to us as leaders to adapt to theirs. Tools like Dr. Larry Little’s “Make a Difference” personality book can really help a leader learn the differences in people, and help you meet them where they are whether a monkey, camel, turtle or lion. Become a student of your team!
7. Ask your partners for help
As entrepreneurial leaders, we buy into the idea that we need to ‘pull ourselves up by our bootstraps’ and overcome adversity on our own. This is incorrect thinking. We are part of an IT ecosystem in which we are in partnership with other providers, vendors, distributors, manufacturers and clients. We’re all in this together. Going it alone is the last thing we should do when times are tough. Pick up the phone and connect with those in your part of the marketplace that you can either offer assistance to, or get over your pride and ask for help from. This is not the time to be tough and self-reliant. If you need help, ask. If you can help, do!
8. Use your trusted resources.
Hopefully, you have created a team of external expert resources that you can rely on during tough times. These might include your banker, CPA, attorney, insurance broker, pastor or spiritual leader, tax preparer, or a host of others. Each of these subject matter experts (SME) can bring valuable insight and perspective to the situation, along with the facts from their area of expertise. During difficult times, leaders have to rely on others to help guide the ship. You can’t know everything that is needed, so you need to trust your SME’s to help guide your leadership
9. Know the facts
When facing difficult times, having the facts is critically important. People will follow a leader when they feel the truth is being shared, but will quickly stop following if they don’t trust the information. You have to know the truth and be transparent in sharing it. Sometimes leaders try to ‘protect’ people by not sharing information they know, or only sharing a partial or somewhat guided set of facts. People will see through those attempts and will just as quickly lose trust. Honesty is key to keeping people focused and in lock step.
10. Share the rewards of winning the battle
There will undoubtedly be need for key members of your leadership team to make sacrifices as we go through this pandemic. I understand that is what leaders do. Whether it is working more hours, taking a reduction in pay, doing tasks that are outside their job description to fill needed services, or whatever it may be, you’ll likely be asking people to do more. With that ask, you should also be willing to share the results of success. Now is the time to assure your team that when you come out the other side of this crisis, there will be a reward for the extra effort and sacrifices they make. You won’t win this battle alone. Incent your people to do what it takes to win.
11. Leverage your peers
You don’t know all the answers. I’ll say it again—no matter how smart you are and how much education or experience you have—none of us are as smart as all of us. Now more than ever you need to engage with peers to share ideas and learn what works. Back in April 2000, I finally admitted this and we began HTG Peer Groups with three other companies who met for a day to talk about Y2K. We learned a great deal that day and gained perspective that allowed us to make informed decisions and to take decisive action. Without doing that, we likely would have floundered and tried to figure things out for months causing even more financial damage. Get involved with peers. Join a peer group like IT Nation Evolve, or find a local group of business leaders you can learn from. You don’t know it all. Learn from others!
12. Keep looking forward
The best news in all of this is that it too will pass. Like challenges we have faced over the history of our world, things will get better. That doesn’t mean we’re not in for some dark and difficult days. But it does mean that the sun will rise tomorrow, and we will begin recovery to our new normal. What people need now more than ever is hope. As leaders, it is important we paint a picture of a hopeful future. Give people something to be excited about. Help them see the potential. As entrepreneurial leaders, most of us are very optimistic in our view of the possibilities or we would never have started our businesses. Many of those who work for us don’t see the world that way. It’s up to us as leaders to help them see that picture and most importantly where they fit in it. Share your vision. You likely won’t be 100% correct, but you can provide a directionally correct picture of what can be. When this passes, those that come out with a plan can strike early and win. If you can afford it, utilize some resources to develop a few of those plans and mature them while things are slow.
It's during difficult times that many entrepreneurial leaders revert to doing the work rather than expanding their leadership. You have to lead first! If you don’t, no one will.
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