Leadership practices for small-business owners during COVID-19

  • Business owners didn’t expect to face a pandemic, but their companies’ survival ultimately depends on how well they can adapt.
  • How leaders guide staff and embrace change are two of the most critical factors in their companies’ longevity and success.
  • The best leaders navigate new challenges with an open mindset and enthusiasm.

In his landmark book on business leadership “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t,” Jim Collins uses a life lesson from Vice Adm. Jim Stockdale to illustrate a principle that he says drives the success of many small businesses. Stockdale, an aviator with the US Navy, spent seven years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. When asked how he survived his ordeal, Stockdale offered this bit of hard-won wisdom: Never doubt that you will survive, but never let your optimism blind you to reality.

Today, the vice admiral’s advice — known as the Stockdale Paradox — is taught at business schools around the world. And in 2020, it’s enjoying a fresh wave of popularity among business owners dealing with the fallout from COVID-19  — for good reason. Companies looking to pivot, evolve, or simply roll with the punches these days need leaders who can remain optimistic while navigating uncharted waters. 

“You must have faith that you will prevail in the end,” says Brian Moran, the founder and CEO of Small Business Edge, a global community platform for business owners. “But you must also have the discipline to confront the facts of your reality.” 

It’s never easy to lead a team through tough times, but it’s precisely those tough times that offer the most important lessons about leadership. At Business Class by American Express, you’ll find helpful stories, tips, and guidelines for small-business owners looking to make their comeback from COVID-19. 

Here are five of the top leadership lessons small-business owners can take from the pandemic. 

Embrace change ‘even the tough kind’ with enthusiasm

To operate during the pandemic, many small businesses have been forced to make tough, often costly, changes: limiting the number of customers they allow in the store, setting up outdoor service, packing and shipping items never intended for long-distance travel. 

While no one likes having these kinds of restrictions placed on their business, having a boss who embraces them enthusiastically helps ensure the rest of the staff will get on board, says Ramon Ray, a small-business consultant and the author of “The Celebrity CEO: How Entrepreneurs Can Thrive by Building a Community and a Strong Personal Brand.” 

“As the boss, you’ve got to wear the mask; you’ve got to wipe down the menus, whatever it takes,” he says. “You’ve got to tell your workers, ‘Guys, our customers are here, and we’re still going to serve them. We’re just going to do it from behind a mask.'”

Ray cites the example of Winston Churchill during World War II, when the prime minister’s frank but galvanizing speeches helped inspire the British to endure months of nightly bombing. And the research backs him up. One survey found that 99% of employees preferred an environment in which issues are discussed truthfully and effectively. “It’s when things aren’t going well that leadership really has a chance to shine,” Ray says. 

Be fearless about transformation

In the age of social distancing, companies with a strong digital presence have an advantage. So if you’ve been procrastinating about starting that social-media account or installing an e-commerce option on your website, now is the time to get it done — and rally your employees around this exciting (and, let’s face it, inevitable) change. 

Moran tells the story of a clothing retailer in Connecticut whose store had suffered fire damage in late 2019, forcing it to miss the holiday season, only to reopen just in time for the COVID-19 shutdowns. But there’s a silver lining: The company used its downtime to establish an e-commerce business and a social-media presence, putting the business in a position to thrive during the pandemic.

“Some small-business owners are really resistant to establish their digital presence, and they keep putting it on the back burner,” Moran says. “But now, you absolutely have to be out there engaging with your customers and talking about ways you can get your products and services to them. The owners who are doing that are succeeding.”

Social media is usually a good way to start — and a general rule of thumb is to first try to engage your most loyal customers on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. From there, you can grow your following by incentivizing customers to share posts that include exclusive deals or coupons. 

Adding an e-commerce platform to your website can be a bit more complicated, but experts advise starting with your top-selling items, then slowly expanding based on what customers show interest in. The key is to build a customer-centric platform that responds to their needs. And be sure to test the experience by buying items yourself. 

The Digital Tools section of Business Class by American Express offers guidance on digital transformation for small businesses.

Harness the wisdom of your team

Good ideas can come from anywhere. But small-business owners too often fall into the trap of thinking they have to do everything themselves. And some fear that asking for help will make them look weak. 

But such thinking is counterproductive, Ray says. “A leader’s job is to inspire and build the right team — not to have all the answers,” he says. “Strong leaders are not afraid to ask for help.” When tough times hit, countless business owners have found their way by relying on the wisdom of their teams. After all, who knows your business and customers better than your staff?

Soliciting ideas from employees is also a great way to help them feel appreciated and part of the team. “Many years ago, I had a boss who said to me, ‘Ramon, I don’t have the answers, but I trust that you’ll figure it out,'” Ray says. “I’ll never forget that.”

Know when it’s time for a new plan

When COVID-19 first came to the US, bringing with it shortages of essential items like toilet paper and hand sanitizer, Black Button Distilling, an 80-person craft distiller in Rochester, New York, decided to make a change. Instead of producing its signature bourbons, ryes, and gins, it would temporarily pivot to manufacturing hand sanitizer. 

The shift was sudden but not impulsive. Black Button had enough liquor inventory to last a while, and the demand for craft liquors was suddenly dwarfed by the demand for hand sanitizer. Founder and owner Jason Barret did the math and decided a temporary pivot was in order.  

Asked how his team was managing the transition, Barret says, “I think the word that sums it up best is determined. Determined that we’re going to make it through this as a group, determined that we’re going to do better today than we did the day before.”

Barret’s advice to other business owners who find themselves pivoting in this environment? When it comes to inspiring your people, what you’re doing matters less than how you do it. “We’re 83 people rowing together in the same boat,” he says, “and if we’re all rowing the same way, we can go pretty fast.”

Discover the tools and insights Business Class by American Express can offer your small business. 

This post was created by Insider Studios with American Express.

 

 

 

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