All of us have been dealing with the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis for months now, yet there is still so much we don't know. We don't know how many more people will still catch the virus, what the ultimate impact on the economy will be, or exactly where we stand on the curve — or even if it's just one curve. If we knew all that, we could put decisive plans in place to weather the rest of the storm and build specific strategies to hit the ground running when we get to the other side. But because we don't know the full dimensions of this global crisis, businesses are not exactly sure what to do next. It's like going from flying a large airplane with a full instrument panel to flying by sight and feel in unfamiliar territory.
As business leaders where do we start? I feel it's important to remember we are in this together. Just like many are learning new ways to lean on their families, neighbors, and communities for help and inspiration, we as a community of businesses — vendors, partners, and customers — are finding new ways that we can support one another for the situation today and the path toward tomorrow.
With that in mind, here are six strategies that I have found helped me and our business find our bearings during a time of world crisis and market disruption and have helped us build a foundation for constant transformation.
1. Drive for speed
Speed is the new currency in today's unpredictable business environment. The notion that an organization can implement a business plan and expect to execute on that plan over the course of the coming year now seems like a pipe dream. In this time of upheaval, a plan made this week could very well be obsolete next week.
Unforeseen and ever-changing circumstances require organizations to respond at a moment's notice. That means you need the agility to reassess new realities and shift plans — weekly, daily, even hourly. In the past it may have been easy to make a plan and stick to it. But this is a time when you need to always be testing your assumptions and be agile enough to say, "That might have been the case yesterday, but this is the right path for today."
In the past, my team and I would hold quarterly business reviews to determine where we stood against the plan. Yes, we would often change our execution depending on how we were doing but rarely would we change the plan. We are now in a situation where we must question not just the execution, but the plan itself. In fact, I look back in amazement at the plans and forecasts our business made earlier this year, because they're not applicable at all today.
For us, planning is now a daily exercise. My CFO and I reevaluate our plans and assumptions every day to see if they still hold true and, if not, what we need to do next. We're in an unprecedented time, and agility and speed are more crucial than ever to survive and thrive.
2. Keep calm and manage on
This is a lesson I learned early on in my career from a wonderful mentor — none other than Bill Gates. In 1990, I was a 25-year-old general manager at Microsoft in charge of database and developer tools. Our two main competitors decided to merge, disrupting the market. I was at a loss. I had no idea what was going to happen next or what to do.
Soon I found myself in a meeting with Gates, explaining the situation. He sensed the uncertainty and alarm in my tone. His response was, "This is all going according to plan." He assured me that he had seen this happen before, and that these developments were a natural part of the evolving software ecosystem. He knew exactly where we were as an organization, and he knew the next few moves we needed to make to adjust to the changing market.
Granted, COVID-19 is no ordinary event. But the point is that the unexpected always happens. When it does, you have to keep your wits about you and make the very best decisions based on the information immediately at hand. As acclaimed novelist Paulo Coehlo once said, "You drown not by falling into a river but by staying submerged in it."
3. Lean on trusted data sources
Last year, I could easily spot the difference between the signal and the noise. But these days it's much harder to tell which is which. That's why I'm having regular conversations with trusted partners, customers and other CEOs in the software industry. Bringing together these multiple viewpoints and data sources allows all of us to see patterns and clarity in the haze.
In mid-March, for instance, I was talking with another CEO for whom I have great respect. I told him that I hoped we'd still be able to hold our upcoming user conference in Las Vegas. After all, it wasn't happening until June and by then the worst would be over. He told me he'd already made the decision to turn his company's user conference into a virtual event and why. Just hearing his thought process helped me immediately understand that we also needed to switch to a virtual format.
4. Over-communicate with employees
In the absence of information, conspiracy theories reign. And nothing is more toxic to an organization than rampant rumors. At FinancialForce, we provide frequent updates and hold bi-weekly companywide town halls to provide as much transparency as possible and let employees ask executives questions. We conduct regular anonymous micro surveys to find out what is top-of-mind for employees and seek their input.
Providing employees with a direct view into the thought process of our management team helps to earn their trust and instill a greater sense of comfort and confidence in these troubled times. But this communication is two-way. Our employees are the ones who have come up with some of the most rational and creative ideas on how to pivot to serve our customers at this time.
While long term plans are fluid, ongoing communication about mutual short-term goals provide grounding and give purpose to our work together. Wins are achievable and celebrated. And while some industries can't provide their employees the option for continued work, communication is still key in supporting employees and building good will for the company that will last beyond the current crisis.
5. Connect with customers
Surprisingly, customers are more reachable now than they were a couple of months ago because everyone is at home and eager to engage. By this point, they have had a bit of time to think about what their biggest challenges are and where they could use help. We're discovering that this is a great opportunity to connect — or reconnect — and reinforce a trusted relationship.
Start by listening to your customers to understand what their pain points are. If a customer tells you not to sell them anything, you need to respect that. On the other hand, you may find that some customers need you more than ever because the product or service you provide is critical to the running of their business. In other cases, you might be aware of a partner or other company that could help them. This is where being part of the larger business community, where we are looking out for each other's needs and opportunities, brings benefit to all.
6. Embrace digitization and automation
This may sound overly positive, but I often think of how much harder it would have been if COVID-19 happened in, say, 1999. It would have been impossible to stay connected and productive back then before the advent of indispensable tools like Zoom and other cloud technologies. One of the key lessons here is that all organizations need to be less dependent on manual processes and more reliant on automation and digitization solutions that enable them to make better, faster and more data-driven decisions.
The COVID-19 crisis has plunged us into uncharted territory and we're all feeling our way forward together. Similar to a game of chess, it pays to understand your current position on the board, while maintaining the flexibility and agility necessary when the unpredictable takes place. A new threat or challenge is best met with a move that improves your own position.
I believe this means you must stay fast and nimble while keeping your eye on where you want to go with your next several moves. Keep focus through situational awareness that helps you separate the signal from the noise. While your path may take some twists and turns along the way, you will improve your organization's ability to come out stronger on the other side.