My five learnings leading a company through a pandemic: Just be human, be smart and you’ll find your way

September 06, 2020 | Phil Fersht

Having founded a successful analyst firm 10 years ago, nothing seemed to derail us from continuous growth… every obstacle could seemingly be overcome by throwing smart people at it or investing time with your clients.  Net net – if you were good at what you did and had some smart people who believed in what you were doing and saw your value, you would always find a way.  You were always a safe bet, a sure thing, something to invest in for the future. 

You could ride out prosperous times and tough times because you influenced sales cycles and validated multi-million (even billion) dollar decisions. Whatever was going on in the world, you thrived off the one thing that kept the wheels on everything:  certainty.  Enterprise leaders, investors, politicians alike all banked on one thing – they had a reassuring view of the future, of where things were heading.  They could always make decisions to keep pushing in the right direction.

We’ve been given the worst corporate disease possible:  Uncertainty

Then along came something no one accounted for which caused the one thing that can destroy the status quo:  uncertainty.  Suddenly everyone is unfamiliar and uncomfortable with their environment – their certainty has dissipated and the rules for conducting business have gone out of the window.  Unless your business is something they have-to-have you may find yourself out in the cold so quickly by the time you realized your perilous position, it may already be too late.

And the scariest part of all this is the immediacy of your potential demise.  If you’re not Zoom, Microsoft, Amazon, Nintendo, Instacart or Occado - who have immediate opportunity to exploit the situation – your whole business model is immediately wracked in uncertainty.  Whoever you may be.  How do you sell the same stuff when you can’t meet your clients, when many your key staff are surely too busy home-schooling their kids to commit to extra work, when your clients’ bosses are suddenly demanding things form your clients that don’t include your products or services?  What do you do if you are suddenly deemed irrelevant?  

As much as pandemics suck (yes, they really bloody do!) they give you a once-in-an-era chance to make changes you never thought possible, or never even realized you needed to make.

Five things I have learned about leading in these times:

  1. Moving everything to digital is not some crazy expensive investment – it’s the best thing you’ll ever do to your business. Seriously, can we please stop this bullshit that “digital transformation” is some insanely expensive cost that is just too much for your firm to handle. Shifting your core products and services to digital results in them being cheaper to deliver, cheaper for your clients, more efficient, faster and give you much, much better data to make better decisions.  If you can’t move some of your services to digital, then they were probably ready for the analog scrap-heap in any case.
  2. Choose your team you need to take with you on this journey – and do it fast.  This is where it gets hard, but deep down you know what you have to do.  This is probably the only rare time you can make painful – and sometimes unpopular - decisions to shape your business around your digital present and future.  Now you can make decisions and take actions that could have resulted in a rebellion pre-March 2020.  Just make the changes and move on fast, you just gotta do it - and be honest about them.  Sure, they’ll probably paint you as one huge asshole and write something about your “toxicity” on Glassdoor, but you know you made a painful - but professional - decision – and so did they deep down. 
  3. Invest in trust with your chosen team. The old rules about managing people are all over the place.  Once you have decided who you need and who you want, this is the motley crew that is going to get you through this.  So don’t just select the people you know you have-to-have, select those who will be up at 3.00 am with you thrashing out proposals and executing for your clients, listening to your quasi-insanity as your turn over every damned stone to keep the wheels on into 2021… Just make sure you have people who know what they have to do, who you trust, who trust you, who are on this road to somewhere with you.  This means you will need to share a level of transparency with them which made you uncomfortable in the past.  This means the old metrics need to be sacrificed for a simple “we just need to get this shit done”.  That’s what real trust is all about.
  4. Family comes first, business second. Then business wins.  These times will define you forever as a leader. This isn’t about being nice, or kind, or even generous – this is about being human.  If anything good came out of 2020, it’s the value of our families around us as stabilizing forces and responsibilities. We may be breadwinners, but we are also mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, and brothers.  We have to make every possible accommodation for our fellow workers to look after aging parents, home-school their kids, support their spouses, etc.  Clients can wait an extra day or two if they need to – they have similar pressures and will understand.  The old 9.00-5.00 is pretty much gone for now… so trust your team to prioritize family needs and find the time later to finalize their critical work.  We all find the time when we are committed, when we feel trusted, when we feel good our family is finding their way through this with us.
  5. Manage extreme emotions with humility and forgiveness. If you are not flying off the handle in this environment on the odd bad day, you are definitely not human.  We are all mentally drained, we are all operating at the edges of our tolerance, and emotions are frequently being stoked.  But that’s not all bad – we get to see the human side of each other a lot more than we ever expected. And arguments are not always bad if we resolve them – that what families do, and that’s what colleagues can do too… just be cognizant that people are human and we’re just seeing everyone function with less of the emotional filters on. I guarantee when this is all over you will have better and closer working relationships than you ever thought possible.

Bottom line:  Staying relevant means staying energized, staying committed, and being damned smart.  And being very human.

Roll on 2021 when we slowly pick up the pieces of 2019 and before, coupled with the experiences of 2020 which changed the world ever (and are still not over).  There are new rules for almost everything: how we treat our clients, our staff… and most importantly our families. And there are other changes emerging we have to figure out, such as how we shape our approach to politics, to endemic racism, to inclusion and diversity, to climate change.  My main hope is we are just more human, more pragmatic, more tolerant, and more transparent as our future unravels around us… there is already enough for our aching brains to handle. 

Peace out =)

Posted in: HR Strategy

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1 Comments

1 Comments

  1. Indranil Mukhopadhyay
    | Posted Sep 11, 2020 12:10 PM | Permalink Reply

    Thanks Phil -- Great write up , perhaps the most relevant thing we all tend to miss sometimes deserves the most attention now " People first"

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