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Leadership & Communication Guidance for Small Businesses During COVID-19

In this piece, we offer strategies to help you lead decisively, confidently and with compassion during this uncertain and evolving time.

Its focus is largely on the "People" component of running a business (in the People, Profit, Planet balance that many of our businesses focus on).

For support on other aspects of running your business right now, check out other resources we've created, including Strategic Guidance for Small Businesses During COVID and Managing Cash Flow and Accessing Funding during COVID.  

The guidance is organized by the three critical things we believe a great leader must focus on right now:

  • Taking action and making decisions
  • Communicating with your team and stakeholders
  • Inspiring leadership and camaraderie among your team

Our hope is that you and your organization, regardless of size and how COVID measures have impacted you, come through this stronger and more resilient than you went in. If you’re a single-person team, we offer ideas to help you be decisive and communicate with your suppliers, partners and customers right now. For larger organizations, we share guidance on team and stakeholder communication, motivation and culture building.

Do you have other ideas or strategies that are working well in your business right now? Please email them to me so we can share with others (saloni@ecoenclose.com).

LEAD WITH ACTION: MAKE DECISIONS, ADDRESS ISSUES, LEAN ON YOUR VALUES

Many people are stagnating or are paralyzed by the daily news. We recommend turning away from the barrage of attention grabbing headlines and focusing instead on making decisions and taking action on the things that are within your circle of influence.  

Lead and take action as if this new normal is here to stay

Settle your team into this new normal, address issues swiftly, and try to focus attention on what you can control (rather than worry about everything you have no influence over).

Over the past few weeks, many business leaders (including ourselves) had to react quickly to information and guidance that was emerging and changing hourly. Some quickly pivoted their business, others went virtual, others downsized their team, and others shut down altogether.  

This week has made it clear that measures to mitigate COVID-19 will be in place for some time, and whatever modifications businesses have in place may be here for awhile. Now is the time for you as a leader to become comfortable with this "new normal" and to settle your team into this new rhythm. How?

  • Be clear with your team about what their schedule and expectations are right now, and how they will and won't change with different mandates and guidance that are put forth. If your governor makes a major announcements, make sure your team members understand what that means for each of them.
  • If something isn’t tenable for your business or yourself, change it. If your sales have slowed but you've retained your team and are draining cash - this is not feasible and has to be addressed, either through cutbacks or financing strategies. It is tempting to avoid these hard decisions by waiting to see how the next week goes, but these are the essential decisions that you can't push off.  
  • If something isn’t working, fix it right away, and encourage every person on your team to do the same. Many of us had to make quick, reactive decisions these past two weeks in response to abruptly changing policies. It’s tempting to keep that going and let various things slide right now. But if you let whatever is broken go unaddressed, it will plague you for a while and could potentially impact your company culture long-term, even after COVID measures are lifted. This is true for big picture issues and smaller things that may feel like "no big deal" but can become burdens on morale over time. A small example: You've moved check-ins to virtual meetings, but people aren't participating and seem checked out. Fix it! Create an agenda that encourages or even requires engagement. Ask for a different team member to lead each meeting. Add an ice breaker to the beginning.
  • At the end of each day and/or week, get a pulse from your team by asking them to share one thing that is going well and one thing that could be improved upon right now. Prioritize this feedback and fix or assign each improvement in order of necessity.

Lead with your core values

If your business already has strong core values, this is their time to shine. You and your team members will consistently be making difficult decisions regarding staffing, financing, scheduling, customer support, your budget and spending, etc. And you’ll have fewer people around to support these decisions. A strong set of core values should make these decisions clearer and more obvious.

Example: Company X has a core value - “Provide Dynamic Solutions.” If a customer calls this business asking to return an item after their 90 day policy because COVID has forced financial tightening, the response is likely an easy “Yes.” If Company Y has a core value of “Consistency and Fairness,” the response may be “No, but we can offer store credit” to allow for customer flexibility but still keep responses firm and consistent with policy.

If you have core values for yourself or your business, invoke them each time you make a decision right now, and encourage your team to do the same.

If you don’t have core values in place, now may be the right time to develop them. There are a number of resources available to help you develop the right values for your company. Here are a few we love:

Be decisive, leave room for course correcting

In steady times, you can often wait for more information and analysis to make hard decisions.

In a crisis, you have to make rapid decisions with the limited information you have, and then course correct as needed.

Example: Restaurants nationwide are faced with the decision of shutting down completely or staying open for delivery in response to a stay at home order. This difficult decision must balance cash flow, employment, health and safety of personnel, personal comfort with risk, etc. If your business is in this type of position, decide quickly with the information at hand, but establish parameters to help you reassess and change course each week. A restaurant owner might decide to stay open and focus on take out and delivery, but set a threshold up front that if sales dip below a specific threshold for a set number of weeks, to shut down altogether and furlough the team.

Don't be a lone wolf or a martyr; lean on your support network

You cannot make such difficult decisions in isolation. Rely on a few members of your team, partners, your parents, your kids, friends, your mentor, etc as you navigate complex situations. Why? Not just for their great perspectives (which are essential), but also to force you to articulate thoughts and come to terms with the implications of decisions before you make them. Don’t talk forever, and don’t let talking get in the way of action, but don’t be a lone wolf either.

Additionally, the old adage that "you can't drink from an empty cup" is so apt right now. You may be more anxious and overwhelmed than you ever have been, but it is critical that you find the space and distance to take care of your mental and physical health, so you can be steady for those around you. Delegate decisions and leadership to team members when you can (and trust that they can be successful). Establish time blocks when you won't be available. Find an activity at home that can pull you away from business and financial stress temporarily each day.


COMMUNICATE PROACTIVELY, HONESTLY, CONFIDENTLY

When it comes to communicating with your team, your partners, and others impacted by the decisions you make, err on the side of over-communicating. But, rather than communicating reactively, we recommend establishing a steady communication cadence with different stakeholders, utilizing the most effective formats for each situation, and striking the right tone.

Daily communications with your team

Establish a daily communication with your team.

This is not a daily "COVID email" (most days, you probably won't mention COVID), but is focused on yur business more broadly. Many companies have a daily huddle and/or update board in their facility in which key info is shared: Daily numbers (sales, fulfillment volume, errors, etc), staffing and scheduling, highlights and inspiration, operational and/or product updates, etc.

If you had a daily huddle before COVID changed your business, your daily virtual communication would mirror its structure. If you didn't, use this time to figure out the right structure and then consider turning it into a daily meeting once your company is back to "business as usual."  

If you’ve temporarily let go or furloughed team members, we recommend reaching out to this group every week or two, letting them know where the business stands and your game plan for the future. These small acts help people stay connected and cared for, and will prove important to culture and camaraderie when you are able to bring these workers back.

If you have halted operations altogether, a weekly communication may suffice, but a consistent touch point with the team is important.

Suggested communication format: Email, video or audio message. Some teams may be able to move this to a daily virtual meeting (via Zoom or a similar software) that temporarily replaces their in-person meeting.

As needed communication about major decisions, as soon as they happen

If a major decision has been made - you’ve shut down all or some of your operations, switched around your scheduling and staffing, stopped an entire line due to supply chain issues - these are the moments when it is critical to communicate swiftly and transparently.

For example: A company has temporarily shut down its retail store and is only selling online until the city’s stay at home order is lifted. Two workers must be let go, one will be transitioned to online order fulfillment and another into customer service. If the online shop does over 200 orders a week for two weeks, the company can bring back the other workers. If it dips below 100 order per week, one more person has to be let go.

These are the roughest conversations a small business owner can have, and social distancing means they now have to be made with less personal connection. Our recommendation is to talk to each impacted worker 1-1 first, providing guidance about CARES Act unemployment benefits to those who are being let go. Then, follow this up with a company wide message, explaining the situation, your decisions, and your thresholds for taking further action. Once you’ve communicated with your team, you’ll want to ensure customers are updated as well as any partners and suppliers.

Suggested communication format: Video message or a webinar / zoom call if possible, to make it as personal as possible and to allow for Q&A.

Regular and as-needed communication with your suppliers

Do you have any open orders with your suppliers?

If changes need to be made (address changes, delayed shipping, order cancellations), contact your supplier as soon as possible so you don’t miss your window for adjustments.

You also might consider proactively contacting your suppliers to find out if they have adjusted their operations, lead times or stock at all in light of COVID measures so you can plan your own purchasing accordingly.  

Suggested communication format: Email or phone

As needed communications with customers

Proactively update your entire email list if (1) you sell items or supplies they rely on, especially during this time and (2) there has been some significant change to your operation.

There is a lot of information that is changing all of the time and is only important to customers who are actively interested in purchasing from you or have an open order with you, for example:

  • Changes to your lead times because of how your company has responded to COVID measures
  • Changes to anticipated shipping times, as UPS, USPS and FedEx adjust their transit expectations
  • Out of stock items
  • Temporary halting of your operations  

For this type of information, we recommend using your homepage as the main source of up to date information on your operation right now, and sending emails to customers with open orders if they should anticipate changes to lead times, if you're out of stock or have paused fulfillment for a few weeks. Give customers an option to cancel or simply hold their order to be fulfilled when you’re operating again.

Many companies have also used social media to update their community. It is important to remember that this information is only “live” for a short time and a fairly limited number of people actually see it.

Suggested communication format: Email when appropriate, you website, social media

Regular communication with channel partners and buyers

Many companies we work with sell through retailers or other businesses. At least half of these retailers are shut down right now, with no certainty about when they will reopen. This has left companies with cancelled purchase orders and excess inventory. If any of this describes your business, there are a few recommended steps at a time like this.

  • Proactive communication with your buyers - are they still open? If not, are they accepting inventory to be stored until they open? What are their next steps for open Purchase Orders and are they providing any financial partnership with brands for this inventory? What are retailers' plans for when they reopen? For example, if they reopen in May or June, which of your items would they plan to stock and sell and which would no longer make sense (seasonally, financially, etc)?  
  • Proactive communication with your suppliers - can they extend terms on any of this excess inventory, or accept partial payment for a period of time?  

The input you get from these communications can help you determine how to proceed. If your retailers are committed to purchasing your goods as soon as they reopen and your suppliers have given you some flexibility, do what you can to wait this out. If you've gotten no assurances from your retailers, and your suppliers require payment ASAP, you may opt towards selling deeply discounted goods online to cover your baseline expenses. This will negate your margin in the short-term but can help you stay afloat for the next season.  

Regular communication with an adviser, support network, or therapist

Leading during crisis is hard on its own. Leading while being asked to isolate is particularly difficult and lonely. Whether you are a single person shop or oversee dozens of workers, we encourage you to invest in your support network and emotional well being. If you have a mentor or advisor, now is the time to schedule weekly virtual meetings. Get virtual happy hours with friends, fellow business leaders or family members. If you don’t have a built in set of people who can support you, consider forums like GoDaddy’s #OpenWeStand Community.

You might also consider accessing support for your mental well being, and not business advising alone. If you already have a therapist, scheduling consistent virtual sessions is critical right now. If not, consider virtual therapy services such as BetterHelp.com and Talkspace.com.


INSPIRE LEADERSHIP, BUILD CAMARADERIE

Ultimately, a business is the sum of its people and how well they lead and interact. One of the most important steps you can take right now is to build a foundation of collaboration, trust, openness and leadership among your team and other stakeholders.

Establish virtual communication forums, with formats relevant for office and non-office workers

Once big decisions are made and shared, the most important communication isn’t what comes from the business leader, it is the problem solving and interactions between team members that happen every day. If your team is now more disjointed than they previously were, it is essential that they have outlets to easily communicate, and that these outlets work for all team members - admin, office workers, warehouse and fulfillment workers, production workers, etc.

Starting out, you may require people to contribute on your chosen platform(s) and over time, it will start to get used naturally.

There are a lot of software solutions out there. We’ve found that the software is less important than you, as a leader, doing your part to set the system up well and get people using it. Here are a few potential platforms or approaches to consider as a starting point.

  • Google Doc or Spreadsheet where people can “sign in” and “sign out” each day with an update on their priorities, accomplishments, questions and challenges they worked through
  • Slack or even Microsoft Teams, which allows people to quickly ask each other questions, but then gives the entire team visibility into those questions and responses
  • Jell is a “virtual standup meeting” tool, which may work well for companies with a large percentage of office workers (https://jell.com/)
  • Google Hangouts and Chats: Invaluable for workers who are on a computer all the time, and were previously used to turning to their neighbor to ask a question throughout the day (such as a customer service team).

There are a host of other wonderful tools out there to help with time management and project management, such as Trello and Asana. Consider these if you’re struggling to keep groups of workers aligned on projects right now, and you think a project management tool will help your business overall, long-term.

Encourage your team to lead and solve on their own, and recognize their leadership

Things will come up daily that you don’t have an existing protocol for. Encourage your workers to use their judgement to make decisions (with core values in mind). Trust that they will rise to the challenge. Highlight their successes and showcase them as examples for others to draw from.

An example: One of our customer service team members saw that were receiving many shipments back from businesses whose operations have been temporarily closed. She developed a process, communication protocol with customers, and a log to track these shipments to respond to this. This is the type of atypical day-to-day issue that will arise right now, and how they are handled is a reflection on your company and brand. But, you as a business leader don't have time to drive decisions like this. Your best option is to trust that your team can address new situations head on, recognize that they will often do a better job than you would, and publicly celebrate it when they step up.  

Lead with empathy, comfort, and assurance

Assume positive intent and be empathetic to others, and encourage your team to do the same. You'll have workers who self quarantine for many weeks, others who can't be as responsive with children now at home, and others who are struggling to focus because of anxiety about what is going on. Whatever the situation, assume that individuals are doing the best they can and making decisions they feel are right with the information at hand. This empathy will go a long way in curbing frustrations and resentments that could otherwise arise.

Additionally, it is important that you recognize that many people, likely many members of your team, are anxious right now - about the uncertainty, about their health and safety, or the health of loved ones. They are nervous about losing their jobs, or about navigating unemployment and their finances after being laid off. They are weary of their mental health and loneliness. And they are recognizing the fallibility of leaders who are responding to an ever changing situation.

Do what you can to acknowledge and allay fears wherever possible. While you can't make promises about how COVID will unfold nationwide, you can be transparent about your business strategy and staffing plans. You can encourage your team to turn off the news and look to a single, daily source for updates. You can celebrate them and remind them that these are the times that build strength, character and resilience. You can share uplifting talks and provide concrete reminders that we are indeed all in this together.

By enabling others to rely on you as a steady and assured presence, you can help those around you rise above their fears and step up as leaders in their own way.

Don't forget about fun! Establish rituals and celebrations from a distance

From water color chats to lunch and learns to happy hours, in-personal socializing (organized or informal) is a huge part of how relationships and culture are built.

WIth these in-person rituals and culture building events on hold, think about what you can do from a distance to achieve these same goals.

If your team is small enough, virtual lunches or happy hours can be really fun. You can consider creating a company “newsletter”, full of photos of team members’ families, pets and homes, so people can get a sense of each other’s space during this separated time.

Depending on your culture, online book (or movie) clubs, and trivia events could be fun breaks for everyone. Invite the team to the same virtual fitness or yoga class. Or, get a Headspace subscription for your group and ask everyone to spend 10 minutes meditating at a set, shared time each day. Whatever is right for your business, pick a cadence for it and stick with it.

Get feedback, be available, be open

Reading people via phone and text - without facial expressions and intonations - is really hard. But, since this is how we’ll be communicating for some time, make it ridiculously easy and interesting for your team members to share feedback, concerns, suggestions or questions.

If you have time, set up 15 min 1-1 calls with each team member once a week. Or use a tool like Chimp or Champ to get a pulse on how things are going.


Resources and Tools That Are Free or Discounted In Response to COVID

Many software solutions are offering free or discounted services for the next few months. Check these out. Please let me know if there are others we should include as well.


We'd love to hear what steps you've taken to lead and grow during this time. Share your stories, reflections or feedback with me at saloni@ecoenclose.com.