Fact: The next few months are going to be testing for SME’s and their owners..

It is understandably hard to stay calm and focussed, particularly for those around you, when you (owner or leader) are trying to adjust to a very new and fast changing environment.

When we are put in this position of vulnerability, the natural tendency is to fall back on old (not so good) behaviours; because it is where we feel safe and in control. For those owners who have ‘learned the hard way’ over many years, IE learned from their ‘bad mistakes’ and ‘bad’ behaviour patterns, you need to believe in the leadership skills you have acquired, and continue to learn in this new environment, as well as trust what you have learnt about yourself in the process. Falling back on old habits and old decision-making processes, and withdrawing from the activities that assist your leadership growth, will not serve you or those who depend on you.

Now is not the time to be hoarding

I encourage you to not withdraw and make yourself ‘smaller’. Don’t hoard your words of encouragement to all those around you, or to be seen by others or your  commitment for continuous learning. Don’t let the ‘old’ you default to this behaviour. Be prudent, aware and brave. There are many around you – family, staff, suppliers and customers – that will value the fact that you are present and talking about the challenges in a factual and calm way.

These people depend on you and your business (in its present form, or in the future), so an emphatic and assuring leadership style will go a long way. 

Those around you, in these uncertain times, are likely to feel awkward or uncertain. They are likely to react differently to the current situation, so you will need to take note of this and adapt to their needs, if you can. Spending time listening to their concerns, and showing you understand, will always stand you in good stead.

Take time with your team

The changes experienced by your staff are likely to vary from them being ill at ease at having to be at work (with health being an issue), or having to adjust to working from home, or less hours etc. This situation will range from uncomfortable to exceptionally serious for them.

They need to understand that what is going on impacts everyone at some level. Many are struggling with the fact they have lost their jobs, or have hours cut while seeing other may not. This can cause staff to be resentful and lash out towards their employer. (As a coach I have heard numerous clients raise this issue with me over the last two weeks). As challenging as this is, take time and demonstrate empathy – let staff and others know they are being heard. This process will also allow them to understand the position you are in and (hopefully) give you the support you need. (This article, as it probable clear by now, is about owners and how they can help those around them – how to stay in the role of leader in times of adversity and not default to old habits. There are many, many owners who have lost, downsized or are radically changing the way they operate and I will be writing more about them and their welfare.)

In this process of listening, owners need to ensure that staff, suppliers etc, have understood the changes they (owners) have made to various part of the business.

Some people will be reassured by the planning and the collaboration while others may dread the need to make change for as long as they can – often for reasons that may not be obvious to you, or maybe even to them.

Have a clear plan and articulate it

That being said, (some) people can only handle or adapt to so much change, or the pressure of the current situation. This will happen despite your best effort. They will become less productive and even incapacitated with the current situation.

Staff and suppliers to your business are likely to also be scared about their future. As things are evolving so fast they are continuously worried if they will they have a job, an income, a client to buy their goods, etc. Since most people access to the same info both about what is happening inside the business and the economy in general, honesty will go a long way in addressing their concerns. It will not be easy for some to accept that critical decisions (drastic measures) have to be made by you to ensure the long-term viability of your company, but ensure that you explain the situation and be as transparent as the situation can allow.

The reality is that the situation is so fluid that each day ‘forces’ you (owners) to take drastic measures. Update those around you – continuously. Be truthful about the situation and how it impacts your business as it may be hard for them to believe thinks can change so fast. I have seen a few situations over the last few days how staff have challenged owners over money issues. They have seen the PM talk about giving relief packages to SME’s and cannot reconcile that to their employees talk of financial hardship. This has caused friction.

Ensure your leadership talk is one of understanding, but ensure it is based on facts, and don’t let emotion “talk’ undermine your message.

Don’t lose sight of the future

It is hard to focus on the future when the present is uncertain and ‘scary’. When we start to worry in business, we tend to become short sighted and our attention span becomes focussed on the ‘here and now’. This focus is important as there are immediate issues that will require more attention; but do not lose track of your longer-term goals. Know that we are all caught up in a difficult and stressful (economic and personal) cycle, but that we will come out of it. When you do, you need to ensure you still have staff (working or ‘waiting’) and a strategy in place to bounce back. (You may ask yourself “what will I do differently or better after this turbulence has subsided to get me closer to my strategic outcomes).

As a leader, staff (and stakeholders) will welcome hearing from you. You should do this face to face, email or phone messages. Stay in contact often, try to engage and listen to your staff about the issues that have a direct bearing on them, explain why and how certain decisions are made, and provide timely information instead of waiting till you know what the precise answer is. This is a new situation so don’t worry if you don’t get it right the first few times. Update and correct your mistakes as best you can. Keep on doing all the above over and over until you do it as best you can.