I have worked through a number of recessions and lived through extremely difficult economic times – including the three-day week in early 1974 when electricity users were limited to three specified consecutive days’ consumption each week and not allowed to work longer hours. Only essential services such as hospitals, supermarkets and newspapers were exempt. Television companies were required to stop broadcasting at 10.30pm.
Needless to say, this current crisis is more sudden, more devastating, more impactful and more economically damaging than that of 1974 and anything I, and probably most other people have seen, apart from war.
Like many others, I had a profitable, successful business only four weeks ago with 49 existing clients and 18 proposals out for approval. Now my team is furloughed, and I am working directly with a significantly smaller number of clients on strategic long-term projects. In April, I might invoice 5% of March’s total billing.
Everything I have lived for and loved for the past 20 years has gone in an instant – my wonderful team, my fantastic clients, my sales and my sense of purpose. I am not expecting, nor want, any sympathy. I am absolutely not alone, and many businesses and individuals are suffering much harder than we are. My family (including my 90-year-old father) are all well, but I know life is very bleak indeed for thousands of people.
It is challenging to think about the future in the midst of despair though I know a lot of businesses are now planning for when the market will open again. The issue I face, like many others, is I will start day one of the new world with 100% of my cost base but will also have to plan for any accumulated debt (delayed rent etc), with no idea of when business might return to normal – whatever that might look like.
Planning in the sector seems to be following three rough scenarios – potentially full closure for the next 12 weeks (and also a possibility of closure for 24 weeks) then:
– Initial peak, slow-down and then recovery to 90% of previous sales level over 12 months
– First six months at 50% and next six months at 80%
– Full-blown recession/depression
There are probably many other potential planning options being discussed. Leaders are understandably cautious about planning for a quick return to 100% of last year’s trade and are constantly reviewing. As one chief executive remarked this week: “At least next year’s like-for-likes look promising!” Nothing will be the same again.
A few years ago, I interviewed more than 50 leaders in the sector on how they defined leadership. In summary they said:
– First of all, set your vision. A very clear, simple, understandable and compelling vision of the future. Know where you are going and where you want to be. It doesn’t have to be complicated.
– Build the team and organisation you need to deliver this vision and manage their performance. They have to totally be aligned behind it – and you have to be able to motivate and inspire them to deliver it.
– Communicate that vision so everyone knows why they come to work every day. One leader described it as a “pyramid of engagement”, giving reasons why the organisation should be involved in creating success.
– Ensure your team has the resources to deliver the vision – that maybe budget, people, IT or simply time.
– Clear away anything that prevents the business from delivering the vision. Ask: “What can I do to make the boat go faster?” If not, get rid.
I have seen these principles, developed for normal trading circumstances, adopted in this new one by a myriad of fantastic leaders. They have:
– Had a vision for getting their own businesses through this crisis
– Determined the team they need to help them through it
– Purposefully and comprehensively communicated to their teams and their customers
– Sought the best advice and listened to best practice
– Not allowed anything to get in their way
I could name so many awesome leaders I have seen put these principles into practice in the past few weeks in extra ordinarily demanding circumstances. I am a huge fan already but to me Kate Nicholls has been superb in demonstrating outstanding leadership skills in this crisis and been an example to so many others.
Nelson Mandela said: “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front-line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”
So many leaders have stepped up to the front line. I salute them and watch them with huge admiration.