When 2020 began, the U.S. economy was enjoying record-low unemployment and its longest-ever expansion. At the risk of overstating things, it seemed the biggest worry many business leaders had was hiring enough people to fuel continued growth.
Then the novel coronavirus hit.
While many (rightly) see the COVID-19 pandemic and the events surrounding it as a gruesome trial that decimated the world, we shouldn’t fail to see the lessons to be learned from it. COVID-19 has been a battleground for sure, but it’s also been one of the best leadership training courses you’ll ever get.
Think back to everything you’ve done and experienced as a business leader during the pandemic. What have you learned? What should you have done differently? Answering these questions will help you hone your leadership skills and become a better leader in the years to come.
HEDGE AGAINST THE UNKNOWN
I’ll admit it: The possibility of an event like COVID-19 was not on my radar at all. Honestly, who was prepared for a global pandemic? If you had told me two years ago that businesses would be shut down for weeks/months and employees would suddenly have to become part-time elementary school teachers, my naïve self would not have believed it. It’s hardly shocking that many business leaders were blindsided by the crisis.
Even though I wasn’t prepared for COVID-19 specifically, I did see companies go under during the Great Recession. I also saw companies that managed to survive without digging themselves an inescapable hole. Witnessing how they did that helped prepare me for future unknowns. It enabled me to set my company up to continue operations during COVID-19 thanks to the risk management practices I’d put in place. Taking less in owner distributions and building up a cash reserve meant that any economic hit wouldn’t cause immediate panic.
Use this time to think about the things you can do as a leader to hedge against future risk. You could set the goal of creating a larger cash reserve or adjust your operations to be leaner and more self-sufficient as you grow in the future. Good leaders will take steps to strengthen their business to ride out future storms.
INVEST IN YOUR BRAND FOR THE LONG TERM
Saying that COVID-19 required businesses to pivot may be the mother of all understatements. Restaurants had to make a hasty switch to curbside pickup and contactless delivery. Commercial airlines that had trouble filling seats due to travel restrictions and virus-wary customers started making cargo-only flights. Red Roof Inns even addressed its low occupancy rates by offering day rentals to office exiles looking for a distraction-free place to work and a solid internet connection.
A common success factor for brands that executed their pivots effectively during the pandemic was the credibility they had going in. When these companies moved into a new area or slightly shifted their business model, they could rely on their customers to follow because they had built up trust in their brand.
Companies establish that kind of brand trust by taking a long-term view. A McKinsey & Company study of over 600 public U.S. companies showed that companies with long-term strategies experienced 47% more revenue growth and 36% higher growth in earnings compared to their short-term-thinking peers. So, develop a long-term plan and vision for your company that allows for the flexibility you’ll need to roll with life’s punches. Without a long-term plan that your customers and shareholders believe in, you’ll lack the support necessary to make short-term pivots when the need arises.
LET YOUR WHY DETERMINE YOUR WHAT (AND HOW)
Recently, I was chatting with a friend who runs a company that serves consignment stores worldwide. When the pandemic hit, there was a lot of worry about the brick-and-mortar stores they worked with because shelter-in-place mandates were restricting customer access.
Instead of stressing over profit margins and revenue, my friend and his team asked themselves, “How can we help our customers through this?” They ended up developing features that enabled their customers to sell more online — and created a deeper relationship with them in the process. Rather than clinging to what their company was used to doing, they evolved as an organization by focusing on what Simon Sinek would call the why, or the purpose, behind their business. They went out of their way to truly help the people that use their product instead of throwing in the towel.
As a leader, you need to reflect on your why during this unsettled time and get some clarity. If you have clearly established your purpose, it can help you better connect with your customers even in tough times. You’ll find a way to navigate your business through the storm if you stay fixed on your goal.
COVID-19 has made me a better leader. It caused me to hone my management skills during a time that might otherwise have broken me down. When you look back on the crisis year of 2020, don’t think only of the damage done. Consider the lessons it offers for making 2021 an even better year for you and your business.
John Hall is the co-founder and president of Calendar, the strategic adviser for Relevance, keynote speaker, and author of “Top of Mind.”