Guest Commentator: Michael Araten, President and CEO, Sterling Drive Ventures; President, The Rodon Group, @rodongroup

How can businesses pivot operations to support the crisis, retain employees, and maintain a revenue stream in response to COVID-19?

Unprecedented, historic, life-altering, global, lethal, social-distancing, testing, life-essential, PPP, and antibodies are all terms we have been bombarded with, learning about and living with for a while now.

I am – like so many of you – facing this global crisis, am working to retain all our employees, keep them safe, keep our businesses going and serve our customers.  And – like so many of you – I am doing that while also worrying about my family and friends, doing all I can to stay healthy, and trying not to watch the news 24/7.

In this column, I will focus on my role as a CEO, and what leaders of organizations can do to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.  Even as I write this, I acknowledge that there is no one answer for every business.  As co-chair of the Middle Market Action Team, I have been fortunate to see approaches across businesses.  With that perspective, I will provide a process for you to consider, and that will hopefully help you filter your own approach.

I have been watching more streaming content than ever since working from home (thank you Netflix, Amazon, Comcast, Hulu). Watching shows reminded me that I often think of business as putting on a show.  Your audience is your customers (and leads who can become customers).  Your actors are your employees; and right now you are trying to write a new script (which may be new products or services) on the fly, and put on your show in a different way.

The Show Process:

  1. Who is your audience? What do they need right now? What problems are they trying to solve?  In a crisis, empathy is more important than ever.  Take the time to think about what your customers are facing right now and likely to face over the remainder of 2020.  What is there situation, and can you provide help? We are a precision plastics manufacturer, so we started thinking about PPE and test kits pretty quickly. We also resolved to communicate with all our customers (at least by e-mail) every week.  We checked on them and didn’t ask for anything; just let them know we were there as a resource if they needed us.  Checking in with your customers will also give you a snapshot of the short and medium term of your business. In our case, while we are deemed “life-essential”, around 35% of our customers had to close.  That has been valuable as it allows us to understand our capacity to try new things while we monitor the gradual re-opening of the economy.
  2. What skills do you and your actors possess? Anyone in a leadership position has to asses the skills and talents of those on their team.  In a crisis, it is critical to think broadly about those skills, and determine if you can re-deploy talent to serve your audience.  Great actors can perform comedy and drama; as a leader ask yourself who on the team has the most versatility and creativity.  Bring those people into your orbit and get them thinking about how to make your audience love your new show.  It could be something simple, like bringing in-house some functions you used to outsource (think sales, marketing, component assembly functions, etc).  It could lead to more involved solutions such as creating new products or services in a matter of days or weeks.
  3. What is your new script? After you spend some time thinking like your customers and maximizing the skills of your people, you will now have some solutions to launch.  I would meet with your senior team, and rank the solutions you have developed.  My advice is to only launch ONE new concept in this crisis.  That allows you to focus all the team’s energy around one rallying point.  This also conserves your most precious resource – your time.  I am sure all of you have enough demands on your time right now, including figuring out how to have teams work remotely, figuring our the Zoom calls, figuring out logistics, and preparing plans for dealing with illness among your team or at one of your locations.  All the new demands on your time means that you want to focus new energy on the singular most important initiative that can help the largest swath of your customers.

Ask your network to help you.  Virtually everyone reading this has their own unique network of contacts, including – of course – this Chamber of Commerce.  Consider what your network can do to help you launch or broadcast your new show.  For example, the Chamber often acts as a Sherpa guiding companies who need to meet the decision makers at the City, State and Federal level.  Trillions of dollars are being invested as part of the policy response to this crisis, and the Chamber has the skills to help guide you.

I hope this process helps you.  Embedded within it is the belief that we can all take actions to improve our future.  I am optimistic by nature, and guided by Albert Einstein’s quote “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”  This is clearly the largest health and economic disruption we have faced in over a century.  I believe it will take the optimism, creativity, generosity and teamwork of all of us to get through to the other side.  We will all be living in a new normal that will test our collective resolve.  I am confident that our members are up to the challenge, and that we will find new opportunities together.

Be well, be kind and be bold,

Michael Araten is the Co-Chair the Chamber’s Middle Market Action Team (MMAT), a consortium of leaders driving rapid growth in companies with annual revenues between $10M & $1B through targeted programs and strategies.