Stepping Up To Your Role As An SME Leader During COVID-19 By Carri Nicholson

We have all entered a period of economic upheaval that no amount of planning and strategising could have ever prepared us for. The current pandemic measures which have included forced business closures; staff furloughs; individual quarantines; physical distancing when we are allowed to leave the house; and social isolation are causing an economic shock which may have a far greater long-term impact than the effects of the disease itself.

In the first month of the quarantine, it felt like almost every organisation on the planet had made a decision to stop trading. Contracts were being halted; all expenditure was being put on hold; staff were being furloughed, and particularly sales and marketing teams – which when you think about it was a really silly idea.  

However, we’re now a month into “the new normal”, and it is becoming increasingly clear that there will be no Fairy Godmother (or Treasury Godfather) who will wave a magic wand and get us out of this situation. Founder of both CAN Do Business Solutions and Growth Circles (Un) Limited Carri Nicholson gives us a crash course on how you can step into your role as an SME leader.

Be agile

We’re beginning to settle into a new normal. People are still buying things – lots of things if you look at the stratospherically increased levels of on-line business that Amazon, and anyone else able to switch to an on-line operational model, are doing.  And some companies and sectors are doing incredibly well out of this – have you tried getting hold of a Swingball or garden furniture recently?

Talk to your existing and prospective customers: what is the new normal looking like for them?  What are their new priorities?  What products or services are they looking to buy at this point in time? How do they want to buy? What do they value about doing business with you?

Equally, talk to your key suppliers, and ask the same questions.  Find out what is changing in their world and what new products and services they are developing.  Can you help them develop these by acting as a beta tester?  Can you offer to get these out to your clients through an exclusive marketing arrangement?

Identify new market opportunities for your business: look at who is recruiting staff online; look at what products or services are selling out on Amazon and eBay; look at what the leading deals are each week in Business Insider.  And then work out how you can adapt what you do to either sell into or support these sectors and companies.  You’re not looking to compete with them, you’re looking to pivot and sell, or to partner – offering a value-added service or product that will help them support their clients.  

And let’s get something straight here: selling or marketing is not a dirty word at this point in time, and I (for one) am fed up hearing from, particularly, solopreneurs in the business support world that it is somehow immoral to charge for goods or services.  How on earth are you going to pay your bills and your staff, if you consistently give stuff away?

Start planning for the future

Ironically, there is sound evidence that one of the best times to invest in your business is during an economic downturn. At times like this money is cheap, and there are lots of opportunities out there if you’re brave enough to seize them (Merida…).  

Take time to re-evaluate and update your business plan, as you are almost certainly going to be looking for additional funding – either for working capital or to invest in preparing your business for growth. Be honest and realistic about cash flow projections; always under-promise and over-deliver; and demonstrate to your potential funders how agile and responsive you are becoming.  Don’t downplay the impact of COVID-19 or write your plan for your business as it was in the “old normal” – those days are gone, and your investors are going to want to see evidence that your business can operate in the new normal.

Don’t ask your bank for investment funding, or support through the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS), unless you don’t really need the money!  It’s becoming very clear that the traditional banks have neither the mindset nor the appetite to support the majority of SMEs just now. However, there are other regulated lenders out there who can help you access CBILS and other sources of funds, such AskIf (who were awesome in getting my loan processed and the money in my bank account in about 2 weeks), who use people to make decisions, not AI.  

Watch what’s happening in the alternative finance, peer-to-peer lending and FinTech spheres as well, as there is a strong possibility that they will be used to deliver CBILS funding in the very near future, with a much quicker turnaround of applications and potentially much lower interest rates at the end of the first interest-free year. 

Be kind to yourself and others

You know when you looked at the “in case of emergency” card that you found in the pocket of the seat in front of you in an aeroplane (remember those?).  The one that told you to put your own oxygen mask on, before helping others with theirs?  That’s how you should be operating now.  You are not going to be any use to your team or your clients if you don’t look after yourself.

Use whatever techniques you can to make sure you are getting enough sleep – there are some great apps out there for mindfulness, mediation, and relaxation – try to eat and drink as sensibly as possible; and make maximum use of that hour of outside exercise you’re allowed at present.  

You might be tempted to throw yourself into work, but take a break from your desk and step away from the Zoom webcam on a regular basis – and don’t forget to check in with and actually talk to the others who are sharing your life and your house with you during the day.  They are struggling with the new normal as much as you are.

Fear can make us all defensive, aggressive and intolerant – and we’re all more than a little scared at the moment, for many different reasons.  Be understanding and kind to the people you are working with – and recognise that even the best corporate cultures will be starting to creak under the pressure of remote working.  Communicate, communicate, communicate with your team – aim for at least 3 touch points every day, with every member of staff, either as a group or individually. Take time to understand their fears and challenges, and if you have one, make sure your management team cascade that approach with the people they are responsible for.

Make your communications authentic, honest and transparent – if things are tough, don’t try and sugarcoat the situation, not only will you fool no-one, but you’ll also create an atmosphere in which rumour and gossip will run wild. Ask your team for solutions, as they may have thought of new opportunities for the business that you had never dreamed of, and don’t forget to keep your furloughed staff in the loop – they will be the most scared of all about their future.

It can feel like a lonely place at the top, but it doesn’t have to be. Depending on your personal preference, either find yourself a good business counsellor or mentor (who tend to be much more hands-on than a coach) or find yourself a group of non-competing, like-minded business owners with whom you can share your hopes and fears; bounce ideas off; and get objective advice and support. 

Mastermind groups like these have a proven positive impact on the ability of business leaders to adapt to change, become more resilient, and identify and exploit new business opportunities. What you pay depends on your budget and business size, but the best can help you grow your business even during a recession.

Carri Nicholson Bio

Carri Nicholson is the Founder of both CAN Do Business Solutions and Growth Circles (Un) Limited.  She is a serial entrepreneur who has 30 years’ experience of supporting, growing and transforming SMEs of all shapes and sizes, across almost every sector.  As the COO of the UK’s first economic development consultancy practice, Carri helped create and shape many of the start-up, business growth, and scale-up support programmes delivered across Scotland, Wales and Poland throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.

For the last 20 years, Carri has not only led some very interesting and diverse organisations but has developed a reputation as a transformational mentor to business owners and leaders, working with them on both a 1-2-1 basis and through her role as the founder and chair of a number of business mastermind groups.  This allows her to not only keep her finger on the pulse of the regional and national business base but also gives her the opportunity to continue to deliver a very hands-on application of economic development principles.

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