During the earliest stages of this crisis, my over-riding concern was about the safety of our team and of the people visiting our offices. A few weeks on, things have changed beyond recognition. Our team are now safely under lockdown in their homes. Like many business leaders, my focus has shifted to ensuring our company’s survival. I feel compelled to talk about this candidly, and about how I am trying to navigate it, because I can’t see what’s to be gained from pretending that it’s all ‘business as usual’. The vast majority of organizations have entirely ceased hiring, and for an executive search firm that is obviously bad news. Somewhat ironically, our ability to do what we do is largely unaffected. My colleagues have been fantastic, and adapted to remote working without missing a beat. They can still headhunt people and interview them. They can still communicate with clients, candidates, and each other (in fact getting hold of candidates has never been easier!). But the impact on our pipeline of work over the coming months has naturally been devastating.
On Friday, someone posed a question on B Hive (an online forum where the leaders of B Corporations chat and share ideas): “What is the B Corp way to reduce costs in a crisis?” This chimed with a wider question I’d started to ask myself: “Whatever we need to face in the difficult months ahead, are there key principles I can use to guide how we respond?”
Now I’m not an expert in crisis management, but I’ve nonetheless decided to sketch out my initial ideas below. I’m doing this partly to help crystallise my own thinking, and partly in the hope of starting a discussion with other purpose-oriented leaders:
1. Clients come first
This surely has to be our non-negotiable starting point. Without our clients, we don’t have a reason to exist. The same applies to a charity with its beneficiaries, or to a school with its students. Nothing we do should damage their interests. New business acquisition may have slowed to a trickle, but we still have plenty of current assignments underway. The successful completion of all this work is priority number one. If we have to reallocate resources, then we must be absolutely confident that we are in no way compromising our ability to continue delivering great outcomes for our clients.
2. Support suppliers too
It’s easy to cut and run from your commitments in a crisis, but that’s how economies enter a death spiral. I’ve heard businesses threaten in recent weeks that they’re planning to break contracts, or that they’re “just not going to pay” particular suppliers. If we’re serious about recovering from this crisis quickly. then we can’t hang each other out to dry in that way. We have to think about the survival of the collective as well as of ourselves. As far as possible, we therefore need to stick by our suppliers and partners. Where existing arrangements are no longer viable, we must enter into renegotiations in a timely fashion, rather than hit them with sudden awful surprises. We all need to afford each other a bit of faith and flexibility. We also have a responsibility to remember how different actors in this drama behaved when it eventually ends. When we emerge from the other side of this, justice demands that the Mike Ashleys of this world face a reckoning, whilst the Joe Wickses get rewarded (someone give that man a knighthood!).
3. Share the pain - but leaders go first
Clearly there will be pain to be absorbed in the months ahead, but we should seek to absorb it together, rather than concentrating its effects on specific individuals or groups. Under these circumstances, cutting costs by simply cutting headcount should only be a crude last resort. This crisis is more like a war than a typical business downturn. The threat is external, indiscriminate, and not of our own making. It’s consequently only fair that we should approach it with the same esprit de corps you would expect in wartime. But I don’t believe fairness means treating everyone the same. Leaders need to step up first and show the way. That’s one of the reasons I immediately cut my salary – pre-dated to 1st March – when the lockdown was declared, and have cut it again from 1st April. Whilst those in positions of responsibility can’t absorb all the pain, we can at least be the first to face it.
4. Overcommunicate, with compassion and empathy
‘Overcommunication’ was our mantra when we first switched to entirely remote working on 18th March. We knew that, with everyone working from home, there would be no more of the watercooler chat or overheard conversations that lead to lots of messages naturally spreading through teams like osmosis. To compensate for that loss, we’ve tried to embrace a principle of total transparency and ‘no surprises’, and I sense that will stand us in good stead for some of the tricky decisions ahead of us. It’s not enough just to be clear on the facts though. We need to retain an emotional engagement by showing compassion and empathy in how we communicate. Ideally, that should be shown in all directions. One of the most amazing things about my colleagues over the past few weeks has been the frequency with which they’ve checked in to make sure that I’m alright. When you know those around you care about you as a person, it makes other burdens so much easier to bare. I expect all of this will get harder in the months ahead though, particularly as furlough leave becomes a reality for more and more organizations. Up until now we’ve all been in the same boat together; all crewing the oars. Now we’re beginning to drop people off on islands, promising we’ll come back for them when the storm abates. That’s infinitely preferable to throwing people overboard, but it’s still distressing for everyone involved. And it fundamentally changes the dynamic at play within our workplaces. To avoid these steps nibbling away at our cohesiveness, leaders need to go even further in the communication efforts. We have to hold it all together with weekly ‘Keep In Touch’ calls with anyone on furlough leave, regular (virtual) face-time with all team members, lots of emails updates, and a consistent effort to dig out and celebrate successes and good news stories as an antidote to the doom and gloom.
5. Trust the team
Finally, we mustn’t allow this crisis to erode the trust we place in our teams. With everyone now working remotely and largely unobserved, many leaders will increasingly feel the lure of micro-management. And with so many things currently out of our control, there’s an added inclination to double-down on those areas of our lives where we still retain influence. Let’s resist these temptations at all costs. This isn’t the time to start cutting back people’s autonomy and issuing lots of directives and orders. Instead, let’s approach this calamity arm-in-arm. A remarkable feature of the past fortnight has been the democratising impact of engaging with everyone in their home surroundings – of seeing their kitchens, and bookshelves, of meeting their children and pets. Reasserting rigid hierarchies would fly in the face of this change and threaten the unity on which our wellbeing depends. After all, this isn’t just a crisis for leaders; this is a crisis for everyone. Leaders might be facing difficult decisions and significant stress, but nobody is immune to the effects of this situation: the anxiety, the uncertainty, and the grief. We need to recognise that we’re all in the same foxhole; all fighting for the same outcome “For he to-day that sheds his blood with me…”, as the great King in my all-time favourite play so memorably put it.
Anyway - those are my initial thoughts. I would be fascinated to hear what people think. What have I got right? What have I got wrong? What might I have missed out entirely? As far as I know, there’s no ‘How To Guide’ or manual for this set of circumstances. So the more we share our perspectives and challenges, the better.