If you are the CEO of a startup, a small business, or a medium business, you are currently dealing with a unique situation — how do you re-invigorate an enterprise that has been rocked by three distinct issues:
1. COVID19 on a personal, human scale;
2. Externally imposed economic and workplace restrictions and impacts based on COVID19; and,
3. The public backlash from racial issues related to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. I will call this last one the Black Lives Matter issue.
These things taken together are likely to have created a negative impact on your company at the individual, granular level and at a business survival level.
There are a few companies who have prospered in the COVID19 environment, but who are still impacted by the BLM impact.
I think that most CEOs would agree that there will be changes, perhaps huge changes, on the other side of these impacts. That is, of course, if y’all survive to emerge on the other side.
So, what does a CEO actually do, Big Red Car?
The very first thing I advise is for the CEO to do nothing.
Do not overreact — overreacting is a disease going around just like COVID19 — but listen.
First, listen to yourself. Where is your company and how substantial will the impacts be? Take stock of yourself. Then, think about your company — you are still not yet sending out long emails about how the world is going to change and you and your company are going to lead the change.
When a pilot is in an emergency, he is trained to Aviate, Navigate, Communicate, and Confess.
The big one is — Keep Flying The Plane.
So, as you deal with this extraordinary situation, keep flying the plane. Let’s be real here — that is to the extent that it is actually flying.
One of the most overlooked skills in the world is the ability to listen. I was once in a line of work in which I was responsible for trying to learn the truth of a thing by interrogating persons whose level of cooperation was suspect. Hell, they were often hostile.
The best advice I ever received was when the other guy is speaking, do not interrupt them. STFU and listen. People will overspeak, if you don’t interrupt them.
Lawyers are taught that the most important question they will ask during a deposition or trial testimony is often: “And then what happened?”
Sit with your people — in some rational organized approach from the top to the bottom and back to the bottom yet again — and hear from them until you think your head is going to explode.
Bit of shorthand for you — you are lancing the boil, letting the toxins flow out, exhausting the anger, the hate, the uncertainty, and the fear.
You cannot rebuild the company’s culture, its elan, its esprit de corps until you rid it of the toxins.
I have done a number of turnarounds and I learned this at full tuition. You get it for free. It is hard wisdom, but it is truth.
It is not a one hour meeting on Zoom. It is hard work and you will find it is incredibly insightful if you will just shut up and let it happen.
Find the pattern
In your listening, you will find some obvious consistencies and patterns. Look for them. Do not suggest them, but identify them. Remember, you are listening.
Keep a damn good list of the patterns.
This is where I tell you for the first time that if your company is aghast at the George Floyd issue and that the issue of racism, even institutional racism, is clearly on the list — do not write an email from the CEO announcing that you are taking a list of ten earth shattering bold actions that will change the course of civilization.
The amateur responds immediately to the stimulus (overreaction I noted above). The professional waits to understand exactly what it actually means.
Be a professional.
Test different responses
Once you have bled the toxins and have found some consistent pattern, begin to model responses.
In listening mode, you might ask, “What do you think we might do to combat this problem?”
This is where having defined the problem — finding the pattern — will work to your advantage.
Develop a list of potential responses and prioritize them. If one of your proposed responses is to buy a Super Bowl ad, this will be at the bottom of the list after you put a pencil to the cost.
Oh, yes, I forgot — cost these ideas. Financial constraints are a reality and we want to stay within the guard rails of reality.
Crawl, walk, run
Implement the proposed responses in a gradual manner. Take your time and do not initiate a program that is so massive that it distracts you from your business — remember, Keep Flying The Plane.
Once you have begun with some specific action, evaluate the results before moving on to the second action point.
Let me give you an example — You decide that you are lacking diversity amongst the “do-ers” on your team, so you start recruiting at schools at which you did not recruit before such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Approach it as crawl, walk, run and don’t break into a sprint.
You will note this is an action you can actually schedule, perform, and from which you can evaluate the results.
Like any goal, it is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Rational/Realistic, and constrained by Time. Be SMART, y’all.
If it doesn’t work, move on.
The reality of the situation is that the final result will be as much from the process as from the resultant actions. Listen to me clearly — you will get a lot of bang from your buck by just conducting the lancing of the boil, the draining of the toxins. This is the power of listening.
Remember you already have a team and whilst they may be roiled up bleeding the toxins will have real results.
There will be some institutional, structural changes that will work immediately. The recruiting at HBCUs will provide you with diversity. Don’t lower your standards, just broaden the pool. It will work.
What not to do
Chief amongst the examplars of what not to do is the overreaction from the venture capital community which exploded with a paroxysm of white guilt — come on, y’all they are all white, but they didn’t do it on purpose — and promised to remake their entire organizations and entrepreneurial deal source pool. Yeah right.
[I am so tired of all the virtue signalling from people who are smart and who have been at the VC business for a long time. Y’all have preached gender fairness/equality and diversity forever, but y’all never embraced it in your own companies. Am I wrong?]
When you look at their company pictures, there is still a lot of white skin, sunburnt noses, and receding hair lines. Whenever anybody virtual signal mugs me, I ask to look at their company pictures and make my assessment as to their sincerity by looking for the black, Hispanic, Asian, and women faces. I just look. The pictures tell the story.
These guys way, way, way overreacted and now they are starting to look dopey with their unfulfilled promises. Do not do this.
This is a pivotal moment in the history of the company, but there is also an element of Y2K and Net Neutrality to it — things that looked enormous, but turned out to be something less challenging.
Be real. Be authentic. Be careful.
Bottom line it, Big Red Car
Like anything else you do — approach the problem with care, do not overreact, do not try to solve the world’s problems on your income statement alone (even Amazon cannot go it alone), keep score, and be real.
You got this.
Have a great weekend and stay safe. Wash your hands. Social distance. Stay out of the bars. Call your best friend from college, your Army buddy, or your Mother. Extra credit for going to visit Mom as long as you don’t give her the COVID19. Out.