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With anarchy gripping parts of South Africa, business owners here – even those not directly in the path of the violence – are facing the real prospect of serious issues with their businesses: staff safety, supply chain, customers, payment systems and general disruption.

I’ve written about the need for ongoing strategy review / development and the importance of planning before, and these issues are brought even more sharply into focus in times of crisis, so here are some thoughts about how to manage through these really tough times.

Overall, I have to say, from experience that communication is probably the single most important issue – your team (all staff), customers and suppliers, need to know that you recognise, acknowledge and are working on the crisis, and that they are being kept updated as things change. And being seen to be taking action is imperative – this is certainly no time for “analysis paralysis”.

So, where to start looking for those actions to take?

  1. Decision Speed over Precision.

In times of crisis, the situation is dynamic and changing all the time. You need to work with your leadership team to understand and process available information quickly, determine priorities, take decisions and action fast. The ability to move with speed is what’s necessary here, so you, with your leadership team, should:

  • Determine and Set Priorities – issues such as staff safety, financial liquidity, customer care and the ability to continue operations are likely among those at the top of the list. Identify your most important, ensure the leadership team is in agreement and communicate the top 3-5. Equally, determine those previous priorities that are on hold – perhaps some growth or expansion initiatives you have been taking – and communicate these.
  • Address Necessary Trade-Offs – not just between possible conflict areas among the priorities identified, but between the urgent and the important, keeping the business afloat now versus growth tomorrow, and so on. Use a scoring mechanism to help you make the determinations.
  • Agree and Name the Action Owners – agree with the team who is responsible for which issues and actions, then communicate this. Push operational decision making as close to the front line as possible – it will speed action greatly. Mistakes will be made, but don’t punish these; learn from them and keep moving on. Research shows this to be much better than inaction.
  1. Adapt as Things Change

The situation will be fluid and changes will need to be made to your plans (and even some priorities) as things develop. The best leaders continue to seek information and input from diverse sources, including outside expertise, and are ready to adapt plans as necessary.

Remember, though, that what worked yesterday might well not work today, so be flexible in how you implement your plans. Develop new ones as necessary, and keep clear lines of communication with those on the front line, so you get an uncensored view of what’s happening.

  1. Deliver, Taking Personal Ownership

Even though much of what’s happening will be outside your control, taking personal ownership in a crisis is what the best leaders do. It’s about keeping the team aligned and focused, developing the plans and changing them as necessary and ensuring a culture of accountability in the business.

You need to have a dashboard showing your priorities and measuring your performance against these, updated daily (or more often) if possible – the dashboard visible to all the leadership team and for them to share with their reports. Set the KPIs for your team, prioritise these, too, and ensure regular report-back and updates. As priorities and action items change, these must be reflected on the dashboard.

And, of course, be sure that you and your team are taking care of yourselves – this is no time to suffer burnout or from a lack of proper nutrition; you’re going to be stressed so nutrition, exercise and rest are key if you’re to operate at peak performance. Task your leadership team with ensuring that all staff similarly look after themselves: if necessary, spend a little extra to ensure healthy food is made available, and so on.

  1. Engage, Engage, Engage

As I said at the outset, communication is vital. You need to have a true open-door policy with not just your leadership team, but all staff. Without this, you won’t really be able to take the pulse of your business and forestall any adverse consequences arising from your leadership during this time.

Reach out to at least 5-6 staff members a day (in addition to your leadership team), putting time for this in your calendar if necessary – on both a personal level and a work one. You’ll learn a lot by doing this and keep the morale as high as is possible in a crisis, which will pay dividends once it’s behind you.

Ensure you actively seek input from all – not to delay taking action, but to feed into your decision-matrix so you can change your plans as necessary. When everyone feels part of working towards the common, well-identified, goal, performance levels increase noticeably.

Similarly, reach out to your customers and key suppliers. Call 3-5 customers a day to see how they’re coping, and to reassure them of your commitment to their business through these difficult times. Let them give you input on how you might be able to assist and try to extend help where you can. Remember the “Lifetime Value of Customer” concept – loyalty can pay huge dividends.

Call your suppliers, too – show them that they’re important to you and what you’re doing to try to help your customers and them. Again, seek input – there may be ways they can help you through these times, too.

  1. Learn the Lessons for Next Time

Of course, every crisis is different, but all have an effect on your business, your staff, your customers and your suppliers. Once things have settled down a little, go through some debriefing sessions and see where things might have been improved, and what lessons you’ve learnt from this time.

Perhaps processes and procedures can be updated as a result, strategies modified for the changed circumstances and, of course, policies and feedback loops strengthened so that you are more prepared for when a crisis hits next time.

And if crisis planning is not already on your board calendar, put it there so you can be sure the board will discuss it during the year. It will reduce the stress when something does happen.

Overall, bear in mind that a crisis affects everyone in your stakeholder environment: your staff, your customers and your suppliers. When one hits, take action fast and keep communication lines open at all times. Your business will be all the better for taking this approach.


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