No matter how the pandemic has impacted your business this year—whether you’ve had the rug pulled out from under you or you’ve watched your revenues unexpectedly soar—it’s been an experience you weren’t prepared for. None of us were. And it’s safe to say that how your business has come through this unimaginable situation has a lot to do with how well prepared it was for what COVID-19 laid at your doorstep and how you, as its leader, responded to the challenges that showed up.
I’ve had the privilege of hearing many stories from our clients whose ability to pivot in the face of this threat has made it possible for them to not just survive, but to thrive this year. Here are a few examples:
- The owner of a tech company in Ireland that delivers management systems to hotels successfully opened up new markets this year. As he watched every hotel in the country shut down during Ireland’s first lockdown, he knew he couldn’t rely on the hotel industry to sustain his business. He realized that his technology could be perfectly applied to two essential services—supermarkets and care facilities—that needed a better way to manage their operations.
- A gastroenterologist in Atlanta has begun to shift a significant portion of his practice to telemedicine. Since COVID hit, he’s successfully built and launched a curriculum-based Nutrition Life Plan Program that he delivers primarily via Zoom with a team of nutrition professionals. The results have been so promising that he plans to replace a large portion of his in-person gastroenterology work with other programs using this model.
- The owner of a financial planning company in Birmingham, Alabama was inundated with new business as the coronavirus moved people to plan for sudden life changes. She had no idea how to serve this growing demand without in-person contact. Initially, her customer service suffered. She took the time to train and educate her team—and herself—on different ways to communicate electronically, innovating contactless systems and workflows. Her new business model is already producing higher profit margins with greater control over the sales and delivery process.
Now, nine months into the pandemic, we’re all experiencing how it’s fundamentally changed the way we live and do business. And we’ve learned a lot. Business owners tell us, more than anything, how the pandemic has woken them up to what their business has been trying to tell them for a long time: lead strategically and systematize every repeatable process.
That’s the silver lining in the clouds: The coronavirus may have stressed us and our business in unimaginable ways, but we’ve become wiser about what it needs to really work—and to work for us as owners—not just during this crisis, but always.
As you look to the new year, with all its uncertainties and unknowns, you can prepare yourself and your business for the challenges that 2021 is likely to bring. Here are three of the most common leadership challenges business owners face, and what you can do to meet them head-on this coming year:
1. Reduce your business' dependency on you
I don’t know how to make the transition from a business that’s dependent on me to a business that can operate successfully without me.
Now more than ever, your business needs you to think strategically about where it’s going and how to get there. It needs you to work on it, not just in it. And that’s not possible if you’re spending most of your time doing the tactical work of your business: making it, selling it, delivering it. When you build your business around your own ability to produce results, you’re living in a world of tactics rather than strategy. Producing results personally may be gratifying—it may make you feel like the hero of your own story—but you’re paying a high price for it. For your business to grow, you have to imagine the end product and then construct it so it can successfully expand beyond your reach. This is how you become free to lead your business.
Making this transition is simple and straightforward, but not always easy. Most often, it involves developing new entrepreneurial, leadership and management skills. It involves making the decision to build a business that doesn’t depend on you and examining how you think about your business—and how your thinking has created your dependency. For example:
- Do you act as if no one can do things as well as you can?
- Have you avoided building systems that can leverage regular people to produce exceptional results?
- Do you find yourself hiring people who end up not having the necessary skills and/or judgment to get the job done?
- Do you expect your people to understand what you want without giving them the context, training and/or regular feedback they need?
It may be a hard pill to swallow, but it’s true: How you think about your business is how you end up doing business. The good news is that you can shift your thinking to create and execute a plan to replace yourself—first at the lowest levels of your organization, and then progressively higher on your organization chart over time. There’s a step-by-step process for transitioning your business to one that can operate without you, one that’s defined by what you want for your life as well as your business, how you strategically allocate your available resources, and your commitment to getting it done.
2. Develop the best team you've ever had
I can’t get my people to do what I want them to do.
Given how often I’ve heard this over the years, I wouldn’t be surprised if getting your people to do things Your Way is your biggest challenge—if not your greatest frustration. You can’t leave this to luck or hope, nor resign yourself to thinking, “This is just the way it is.” When you make the strategic decision to build a business that doesn’t depend on you, you’re freeing yourself to craft “the way we do it here” at your company.
Your Way starts with a vision, a picture of a business that works: how it will look, act and feel when it’s everything you know it can be. That’s entrepreneurial leadership: imagining a business that inspires you and inspires others too. Then, you need to translate your vision into a specific set of values and standards that define what you expect of your employees.
Your values and standards are the essence of a meaningful company culture, and the foundation for the recruiting, hiring, training and management systems that attract employees who want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Hiring people who are as dedicated as you are is a skill that most business owners, in my experience, don’t realize they can acquire. Creating a team of people who do things the way you want them done isn’t a pipe dream. It’s a natural consequence of building a vision-, values- and systems-based business.
3. Make your sales predictable
I have no idea how to generate consistent, predictable sales.
It’s been heartbreaking to watch what COViD-19 has done this year—to the retail, restaurant, travel and transportation industries in particular. Businesses have been forced to close or are barely scraping by. The people who work for them have lost their jobs and, in too many cases, a lot more. As I’m writing, Operation Warp Speed and a number of cargo carriers are bringing the first shipments of the coronavirus vaccine to healthcare workers on the front lines. I’m sure we’re all hoping that this will be the start of life returning to some sense of normal. Of course, it’ll take time for the owners of businesses in these industries to think about anything but survival.
Whatever industry you’re in, “not enough sales” may well be at the top of your list of problems to solve in 2021. There are, of course, many possible causes. You may not have a way of generating sufficient leads. You may be distracted by everything else your business is demanding of you, making it difficult for you to give sales the necessary attention. You may have salespeople whose results are unpredictable at best. But even if all of this is true, there’s no better, more dependable way to grow your business and your brand with the leads you are generating than to build an orchestrated sales process for your company.
Yes, this means identifying every step of the process, including the literal words you say, how you say them, and how you respond to the most commonly asked questions from prospective customers. You know better than anyone how you want your customers to be treated, and what it takes to elicit a “yes” to your product or service. This kind of thoughtful systemization is the best way to produce consistent, predictable sales results … that don’t depend on you. It’s an investment in your business that will pay big rewards in revenues, control and the elimination of stress—your stress.
I wish you and your family a healthy and prosperous new year. These words have never felt so meaningful to me. I hope you stay safe and prepare yourself for the year ahead. So much depends on it.