“Call it psychological,” New York Governor Albert Cuomo told a New York Times journalist on his notoriously hard-ass communication style during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Call it feelings. Call it emotions. But this is as much a social crisis as a health crisis.”
His bull-by-the-horns approach – often criticized for being needlessly abrasive – is now being lauded by many for being the kind of leadership that people need. Nerves are rattled, the future is uncertain. And in these times, people turn to their leaders for support, affirmation, and direction. That’s where Cuomo has stepped up for New York residents.
For businesses, this crisis is not just about business survival and continuity – which of course are important. It’s also about keeping your employees engaged and motivated to work for you, and keeping your customers loyal.
After all, no business operates without the engagement of all involved. When you express your organization as part of the larger business community of employees and customers – as a key participant of society in this crisis – then that’s a powerful message that will be willingly accepted.
And it’s on you, as a business executive or entrepreneur, to demonstrate your leadership in these times.
The power of clarity
A core facet of maintaining that kind of business community and leadership is clear communication – as Cuomo does; no dancing around the topic, no smoothening over of rough edges, no diminishing of bad news. Transparency is key, particularly now. Don’t underestimate people’s ability to absorb messages and respond in the best way possible.
Kevin Hancock of the Hancock Lumber Company attests to that: “Employees are people, and as simple as that sounds, it’s important to treat them as such. Everyone deserves to know what is at stake and everyone is capable of leading a corporate transformation in times of crisis.”
Kevin learned the importance of transparency, based on his experiences from the fallout of the subprime mortgage crisis in the late 2000s when he was trying to ‘protect’ his team:
“In hindsight, our communication with our employees was not proactive enough or transparent enough. We tried to shield our employees from the potential impact of the disaster until it threatened to overrun us.”
Chad Hill, CMO of Florida-based law firm Hill & Ponton Law, which specializes in disability cases, also emphasizes transparent communications throughout the company:
“The least the company can do is to get everyone on the same page. Executives should be open to their employees especially if the company is facing some unfortunate event. Getting everyone on the same page could help you and your employees understand where each stands in the situation.”
Now that the importance of clarity is, well, clear – what message do you want to deliver?
1. Listen to your employees
Cuomo’s ‘social crisis’ comment is about the depth to which society has been impacted by the current crisis. It’s not just a handful of people in one area, nor is it one society or one country getting the brunt of it. It’s not just ‘the poor’. This crisis is far-reaching and very visceral, and everyone is being impacted to some degree, be they healthcare workers, restaurant owners, senior citizens, parents, etc. It’s not a stretch to say we’re all in it together. So, stating this outright is essential.
It’s a message you need to share with everyone involved in your company, be they employees, customers, prospects, or society at large. You’re not just the big boss, or some high-level executive, or far-away manager dialing in remotely. You’re in the thick of it with everyone. Convey that in your messages and actions.
Build unified teams and let them lead
Kevin at Hancock Lumber noted the challenge of keeping his workers unified through the work-from-home trend, pointing out that not everyone was able to work from home in his company. He monitored that closely and was sensitive to how it might impact his employees:
“[We] have decided during this COVID-19 crisis to stand together as a team. We felt that if we let certain work groups go home while keeping others at work that this might cause some division at a time when we need everyone to be united.”
Kevin turned it into a culture-defining opportunity by motivating employees to lead the charge:
“We immediately asked everyone to help lead the new work culture realities of cleanliness and social distancing, and I have been so impressed by how quickly everyone created positive change.”
He repeats the importance of turning the tables around and letting employees and customers set the tone throughout:
“The company is there to serve employees, customers, and the community in the first place and it is exceptionally important to operate that way right now. […] This is really about the people connected to the company – not the company itself. A company needs employees to create value and customers to consume that value. It can’t function without both groups. During a time like this, the company needs to follow the lead of the people connected to it.”
A rising tide lifts all ships
Bryan Clayton, CEO and co-founder of Nashville-based GreenPal, which he describes as a ‘Uber for lawn-mowing’, also talked to the spirit of getting your employees fired up about surviving as a group – because everyone benefits in the end:
“It boils down to getting your team galvanized around the idea that survivability and the business surviving is more for the benefit of the business family than the individual. If the business survives we will all be OK, and if people can make some short-term sacrifices to keep the business afloat then we will all have jobs when this blows over.”
Tristan Mermin, CEO and founder of Batiste Rhum, an award-winning eco-positive rum distillery in the French Caribbean that sells its products throughout California, also prioritizes the focus on the people both connected with and in the company:
“Set sights on what you want from your operation and its people. Encourage those that are committed and join with them in the effort to continue. Remove or downplay the need for glory and vanity. Be obviously thankful to your customers and their employees.”
Include your staff in the ‘why’
Bryan at GreenPal talked about the bulk of his company operations being managed by Guatemalan immigrants who he said were some of the “finest people [he has] ever known”. They would come to the U.S. for several lawn-mowing seasons and save as much money to support the building of homes, ranches, and cattle farms for their families.
“This became our company’s purpose, our ‘Why’,” says Bryan. “In weekly meetings, we would get progress reports from our men on how projects ’back home’ were coming along. In the halls of our office and in the shop, we displayed picture collages of all the homes, farms, and businesses that had been established by our people in Guatemala.”
That spirit carried the company through.
“Celebrating these victories gave us fuel to get through the tough times, particularly with the economic recession that began in 2009.”
That ‘why’ isn’t about the business’ bottom line. It’s about the bigger, overarching mission and vision – remember writing those when you first worked on your business plan? Better yet, identify a bigger-picture mission that motivates all of you, together. When you include your employees in that mission – and listen to them throughout – that’s a huge motivator.
2. Support your employees
People will always remember what you’ve done for them in the midst of a crisis – whether it’s subprime mortgage or COVID-19. They’ll also remember what you didn’t do for them. This is especially crucial when employees are devoting a great deal of their mental – and physical – energy each week to the productivity of your business, more so in the midst of the fray. If you show them you’ve got their back, they will respond in kind.
Ease the burden of tough decisions
You can help employees make those right choices, by giving them clear guidance – i.e. if you’re getting X symptoms, stay home. If the situation with your kids is Y, stay home. Many governments worldwide have already stepped ahead and mandated shelter-in-space, but it sends a powerful signal to your employees if you have clear guidelines to help them make tough decisions such as staying home and taking care of their family or whether or not they should come to work when they’re too anxious to do so.
It helps rid them of burdensome guilt that can hamper their ability to make good choices for themselves and for your company, if you just step up and make clear where their priorities ought to be.
To wit: Kevin’s rules right now are clear and to the point, ending with: “If you can work and feel good about working, let’s do it.”
Again, he notes, it’s about putting the employees first.
“It makes more sense for the company to serve and follow the employees than for the company to chart a mission focused on serving itself. So far, the support we have received has been nothing short of inspirational.”
He adds: “I have a lot of confidence in humanity. I believe that individuals will make the right choices for themselves when given a safe work culture to operate in.”
Make sacrifices for your staff
Wes Guckert, CEO/founder of Maryland-based traffic data and engineering consultancy The Traffic Group and an instructor at Harvard University, regretted having to lay off employees in 1992 and vowed never to do that again.
“As an owner, the way to mitigate is to put into play an economic plan that does everything possible to keep your team employed and keep them from losing their home or vehicle. If a small business owner has the wherewithal, part of the mitigation might mean taking personal loans to keep the business afloat and continuing to make payroll.”
He’s stepping forward to the front lines by putting his money where his mouth is:
“I am borrowing every bit of money that I can to keep our company afloat. […] I’m also ready to take all of my savings and put it back into the company to save our employees.”
That move can extend to the surrounding community at large. If you’re in a position to do so, you can look at those in need and take actions to support them.
Ruth Hartman at Coffee Creek Ranch, a ranch in northern California that has hosted fishing and other nature expeditions since 1900, emphasized the importance of kindness and empowering employees:
“Be kind. Think of ways to give back. People in the restaurant business had lots of food and most have given to their employees here in California and other states. Some gave to the homeless. And some reinvented themselves and did takeouts when they were a sit-down eatery.”
Remember, it’s a long game
Billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban said as much in late March, telling CNBC in an interview on the topic of rushing employees back to work in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis: “How companies respond to that very question is going to define their brand for decades. If you rushed in and somebody got sick, you were that company. If you didn’t take care of your employees or stakeholders and put them first, you were that company.”
You don’t want to be that company. You want to be the company that stood up for those who work hard to keep the company – and the community – afloat. Not only is it benevolent, it also pays dividends down the line.
3. Support your customers
Just as supporting your own employees can be immensely powerful for the morale of your company, you need to also ensure your existing customers are well taken care of. They’re also nervous and rattled, and most likely as impacted by the crisis as you are.
To do that, you need to communicate directly to your customers that you’re still operating, and tell them about the tangible steps you’re taking to survive through the crisis. That kind of reassurance is powerful in long-term customer loyalty and can position you as a reliable member of the business community.
John Crossman, a writer and speaker for college students on career planning and growth – and president of Florida real estate company Crossman & Company – recommends getting ahead of that right away:
“Be visible! Make sure to tell your story or someone will do it for you. You want all of your clients and potential clients [to know] that you are available and open for business.”
John didn’t just communicate that – he followed up by putting his company’s words into action:
“We survived because we hunkered down with a handful of clients and worked hard to take care of each other. We worked huge hours and did things for free for clients. We did everything we could to cement the relationship.”
Keep that personal connection
Dave Munson at Saddleback Leather Corporation, stepped up and made sure his customers knew there were empathetic people caring for them behind the scenes:
“I was very involved in the customer side of the business and shared all of the behind the scenes struggles and fun times we were having. It brought about sympathy and a friendship with our customers. They were no longer dealing with Saddleback Leather Corporation, but rather with Dave and his leather company. One of the most important things a business leader can do right now is share their concern for their employees and customers.”
Strong messaging like that can go a long way in keeping a customer on board. When you’re running a $15-million-per-year operation, personal connection with those who keep your business alive becomes even more important.
It’s not ‘me’ – it’s ‘we’
Wes at The Traffic Group testifies to the lack of precedence in the current crisis while pointing out the importance of working together:
“This is a stressful time, no matter who you are, where you live, or what industry you’re in. We have never experienced a pandemic like this before and recognize the unknown brings fear and worry. At the same time, we must keep in mind that the best and brightest the world over are focused on combating this virus. We will get through this together and are confident we will come out stronger on the other side.”
Muhammad Ali once recited what’s widely considered the shortest poem of the English language: “Me… we!” Albert Cuomo’s ‘social crisis’ comment is designed to appeal to not just the business community, but the collective strength of a society that comes together.
Communicate that “all in” spirit, make your employees feel valued as part of your business and your customers feel appreciated, as well as empower both in knowing they, too, have a part in the play.
Businesses don’t run on their own. If you show others that you’re with them through thick and thin – be they employees, colleagues, friends, customers, prospects, or other – they will remember that.