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This is how to lead a startup through crisis and change

The cofounder and the chief people officer of Brex point out that companies are remembered for the good times but defined by how they handle adversity.

This is how to lead a startup through crisis and change
[Photo: Kwong Sang /Wikimedia Commons]

COVID-19 has brought global uncertainty and record high market volatility, changing the way companies operate almost overnight. This has had huge ramifications for how businesses operate, and how leaders and managers are expected to support and communicate with their teams.

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The silver lining is that uncertainty creates opportunity–especially for the companies that will be born from the wreckage. This isn’t the first time our world has felt the burden of an economic downturn, and it won’t be the last.

Focusing on both survival and growth through crisis, here are 10 things business leaders can consider as they weather this storm.

Adapt to give your customers what they need now

Keep customers at the center of everything you do. Demonstrate that you’re here to support them, and save them money and time by evolving to meet their demands. Understand how change may provide an opportunity for growth, and find ways to build customer loyalty. Customers will never forget how you treat them during a crisis, and that treatment will define your brand for the next decade.

Take care of your team using transparency and humility

Remember that people will experience this crisis in vastly different ways. Address the entire spectrum of employee feelings and needs, not only those in the majority. Some can easily adapt to new circumstances, while others can not; some are confident in the current business model, while others need to be reassured. Survey your team regularly to solicit feedback, pivot as needed, and be purely transparent in decision-making processes. If you’ve laid a foundation of trust, your team will come along with you.

Assess spending and manage your burn to extend your runway

Companies go out of business because they run out of money. Assess current liquidity, travel and expenses, payroll, customer acquisition cost, and expense management, and consider which expenses can be scaled back or done in-house. Analyze different revenue outcomes to see where your money breaks. Draw on credit lines, identify funding sources, and talk candidly to investors about company data. Understand what your available options are to extend your runway, and adjust expenses accordingly.

Overcommunicate to employees, vendors, partners, and stakeholders

Communicate often and courageously, using a consistent cadence and a variety of platforms. Build morale by infusing the dismal global narrative with stories of company and customer success. Remember that honesty drives trust, and building trust is crucial during times of uncertainty. Data and certainty calm fears, and people are generally fearing the worst these days, so be confident when providing updates to stakeholders, and proactively present contingency plans, cash positions, and wins. Leadership may not always have the popular answer, but reassure employees, partners, and stakeholders that they will hear from you first, should changes arise.

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Look for opportunities to grow through a crisis, and come out better than ever

Opportunities are created in times of crisis. Volatile markets can steer focus toward high-impact partnerships, resource sharing, and M&A. Opportunities to acquire and consolidate are never stronger than in a vulnerable market. Look for opportunities to acquire top tier talent and strengthen your position during a time when many companies are downsizing. Focus on strengthening your brand’s reputation and building customer and employee loyalty for the future. Never waste a good crisis.

Don’t be afraid to innovate to meet organizational needs

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, so don’t feel like you have to shoehorn what someone else is doing to fit your company’s framework. The tech world is full of innovators, so solve organizational challenges with a product mentality. Adapt your roadmap for how customers experience your product to how employees experience your company.

Test company culture to ensure your values are aligned with behaviors

How your company responds to a crisis directly reflects its culture. If your company says it values transparency but withholds information from the workforce, or says it is customer-focused but doesn’t communicate openly with stakeholders, then maybe it’s time to reevaluate those values. Cultures evolve, and it’s important to know where company values stand at any given moment, especially in unpredictable environments.

Analyze your workforce and test outcomes

Remote workforces give businesses the test environment flexibility for future hiring sources and locations, and allows companies to test the way they fit to new standards. Test what works and what doesn’t, and apply lessons learned on the other side. Create regular surveys, and look at every cut of data and demographics to better address your plan for employees moving forward.

Realign your company to be agile and efficient moving forward

During highly volatile times, big incumbents are distracted and slow. Use this time to build efficiency in your company not just for the present, but for the future as well. Since no one is focusing on growth right now, it’s the perfect time to structure your company toward postcrisis efficiency. Decide how to reduce costs and build productivity using creative alternatives to workforce management, talent allocation, and overall expense, reassess priorities, and create a sustainability plan for the future.

Lead decisively every time

Be respectful of employees’ time and emotional health. Rather than equivocate on decisions, reinforce psychological safety with bold and intentional action and clear communication. If you need to make uncomfortable decisions to solve for runway, do so one time, thoroughly. Don’t let your company suffer death by a thousand cuts. Your employees will appreciate your transparency, and reward you with their loyalty.

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If you’re deliberate and thoughtful at present, you can set yourself up to thrive on the other side. Evolving through crisis requires a leap of faith, but with a strong mission and culture, and adequate planning, you can come out of this situation stronger by conveying why what you’re doing is important to the world.

Remember: Companies are remembered for the good times but defined by how they handle adversity.


Henrique Dubugras is the cofounder and co-CEO  and Neal Narayani is the chief people officer of Brex.

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