The COVID19 crisis is here to stay for some time. As governments and large corporates announce measures and activate their BCPs (Business Contingency Plans), they are showing the market that they have learnt from past crises and are prepared.
But what about founders and start-ups? The focus so far has been on establishing the business model, creating scale and building a culture. Being hit by a deadly health crisis was not even in the appendix of the business plan.
As a leadership coach, I can’t tell you what to do with your business model. Your investors, advisors and employees are there to help you figure that out. You will hear the words pivot and re-pivot and temporary anchor more times than you sanitise your hands. But as you embark on those conversations, here are some strategies that could help you keep on track with being the leader and entrepreneur you set out to be.
1. A band of brothers (and sisters): Executive roles can be lonely and executive roles in a start-up can be even lonelier. When you’re talking ideas and growth, it is easy to share your thoughts with those in your team and build enthusiasm. But you need a tribe of people in a similar situation to help you think through the current crises and explore options.
A strategy that works in one industry may work in another and this would be a good time to explore those options. People are also generally more willing to share and help during times of crises. Just as someone else’s thoughts might help you, your insights could also help another founder while helping you clarify options in your own head too.
A community that I am part of has had a few worried conversations from people who have just embarked on their business. As we shared the impact on our business and the strategies we are employing, there was a general sense of relief in the room. A newly minted entrepreneur I spoke to shared that there was a sense of optimism that everyone in the room saw this as a limited time issue. The examples of how businesses bounced back from SARS also added to the sense of comfort. There was some conversation on how others in the room were going to use the ‘downtime’ and they went back with some tangible ideas for at least the next few weeks.
Be realistic about what you expect from this group. They may not be there to solve your problems, but their survival instinct and drive might just be the inspiration you need at this moment.
2. The Firm as an Individual: Apart from thinking of employees, investors and partners, think of your firm as an independent entity as well. A lot of founders can’t separate their identity from that of the firm they founded, and this would be a good time to start.
Thinking of the firm as an objective ‘other’ brings rationale to the options on the table. Reducing the payroll outflow might bring a heaviness to the heart of a founder who was focused on creating a close-knit workforce but may be the only logical option to keep the firm alive. Cancelling an order with a buddy who helped you in your early days may be a difficult choice but one that the firm as an entity needs for now.
Uber, WeWork and Facebook, all tell of a story where the firm became independent against the founders’ plan, much like a teenager raring to go live their own life. There is always a time when the firm becomes independent of the founder, the current crisis has just accelerated the need for the firm to make a stake for its own identity.
3. Be true to the Leader you wanted to be: How people see us as leaders gets defined not by the good times we brought in, but how we lead in times of urgency and crises. How would you want this phase of your leadership to be remembered? What would you want your employees, investors, clients and partners to say? What are the words that resonate with you beyond the cursory, the typical?
Your legacy will get defined not just by what you choose to do but how to do it as well. A founder I know well had to exit the business because the protests in Hong Kong went on too long for his fledgling business to sustain. How he stayed true to his values and his team define how we think of him and the reason for so many people rallying behind him as he embarks on restarting a corporate career. The founder of a small design firm held on to its clients and went the extra mile after the November 2008 bombings in Mumbai, and the support he got back when the crises were over helped him expand the business and become an established player.
Every story will not pan out the way it was written, and every founder knows that. The truest test of a founder’s passion and leadership comes with an unimagined crisis. It is here right now, and I hope you emerge on the other side a stronger leader, ready to pursue the opportunity that the new calm will bring with it.
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