Spring Survey Results: the biggest challenges facing businesses right now. With practical tips on how to overcome them.

During lockdown did you grow weary of the same house, same regulation walks, and the same people to talk to? Maybe your premises were open, but it all felt (and still feels!) very strange.

We’ve been trying to make sense of things (in much the way you have), so we sent a mini-survey to a group of our clients and contacts to get a pulse check on how they’re feeling right now and what challenges they think might be coming over the horizon

Here are the results, along with our take on what it might mean to you, and some tips on how to address these challenges.

Challenge 1: Maintaining consistent communication across the business

It’s no surprise that maintaining consistent communication and engagement across remote and office-based teams appears to be a key challenge right now:

  • “I wish I could be there to get stuck in – working from home has created some unfortunate team divisions.”
  • “There’s been a massive hit on productivity. Everyone is using the systems more thoroughly, but we’ve lost the human touch.”
  • “Crisis management has pushed our senior teams into silos.”

Communication is always one of the most difficult aspects of leadership, but now with reduced opportunities to meet face to face, this comes out on top of all the comments. Given how much easier it is to meet using Zoom or Teams nowadays, how come? Well – have you found that EVERYONE is in virtual meetings all the time now? Which makes it more difficult to communicate. This means you need to increase the efficiency of those meetings and make sure communication happens as part of a plan.

Ideas to help you up your communication game

How do you improve your communication? We recommend you:

  • Upgrade meeting disciplines (and lead by example). The trick is to be (even) more disciplined about meeting protocols (agenda, timing, topics to cover and only those) and to make them short, focussed, and impactful.
  • Have a weekly communication plan for the whole business which is proactive and managed. The companies that have established regular and robust schedules for daily, weekly, or monthly meetings and check-ins have been able to get the right messages out and communicate quickly and effectively the best. Think positive proactive messaging, and keeping people informed and in the loop as much as possible. A newsletter, an SMT email update, a message from the top – whatever is appropriate for your organisation.

 

Challenge 2: Managing conflicting demands

We heard a lot from our clients on the challenge of managing conflicting demands. These included balancing:

  • “Short term revenue generation vs offering longer-term value” 
  • “Corporate expectations vs the wellbeing of my team”
  • “Workload vs resources”
  • “The needs of remote workers vs office-based workers” 
  • “Growth vs good work-life balance”

With concerns about the sales pipeline, the potential for redundancies, and avoiding mounting debt it’s no surprise we observed a general sense of uncertainty – because these are uncertain times of course. This level of uncertainty creates a requirement for quicker (and often more) decisions, as leaders need to pivot and change and react to what’s going on in the market and with changing Covid advice.

Ideas to help you manage competing demands

  • When trying to manage everything in the list above – the first step is to ensure you have the right facts and data at your disposal to make the decisions.
  • Think: Forecasts out – Dashboards in. Make sure you have facts and data to inform the choices and decisions you’re having to make. Decisions require facts and data – and often that’s what’s missing when you’re trying to manage the conflicting demands.
  • Are you looking at the right things – and are they accurate? What is the data (day to day) telling you?
  • Are you investing time in getting your finger on the pulse (e.g. what do your customers need now?)
  • Do you understand the data too – technically and quickly – “what is this telling you”. Get good at diagnosing and understanding actually what’s happening.

Challenge 3: Concerns about business development and sales

We asked our clients and contacts what they thought the next biggest challenge would be. Given that lockdown measures have been easing and we’re all getting used to a ‘new normal’ the responses to this question were clustered around expansion or growth in the difficult market conditions and growing their pipeline & sales during a recession.

  • “Maintaining the pipeline of new business if/when the UK goes into full-blown recession”
  • “Certainty on a pipeline going forward – confidence in jobs going forward.”
  • Our next 6 months activity hinges on the pipeline – looks OK for 6 months. If we can secure that – our next challenge is resourcing and structure.”
  • “Selling modified services to clients who might not know what their new priorities/problems are yet.”
  • “Rapidly understanding what our clients are doing in terms of their portfolio & project pipeline.”

Ideas for business development in recession times

When you can’t forecast what the pipeline is going to look like then the best place to research it is with clients and customers right now, and what they’re experiencing and thinking.

  • Massively increase your activities to find out what’s happening in the market and what perceptions, hopes, and fears your clients have. Maybe this is through a survey, or a rigid ‘Check In’ schedule to call and have a conversation. These conversations could be invaluable.
  • Make sure this data comes back to HQ – remember what we said earlier about facts and data aiding decision making?
  • Build morale. Your sales team may be suffering from job insecurity and income decreases. Yet a happy and engaged sales team is key to high performance. Boost morale by giving regular feedback, engage them in creative thinking, and make time for team development.

There were several other encouraging answers too, where people were trying to maintain good management practices or expand new services they’d developed during lockdown:

  • “Not allowing myself to be drawn back into a delivery role and maintaining focus ON the business.”
  • “We have discovered new ways of doing things over the past three months.  As more staff are invited back it is going to be a challenge to ensure that the new procedures are followed.”
  • “Building on current online events to make them a sustainable business.”
  • “Different disrupters coming into our market – how can we be a disruptor to another market?”
  • “Understanding how we need to structure business better and more efficiently”

The main message here is to take advantage of the moment, make the move to change your teams and organisations now instead of waiting for the ‘new normal’ to arrive. Don’t hesitate, act now.

Challenge 4: Successfully motivating, managing and leading through change

We asked what topics you most want to hear about right now. And the subjects that were most on your mind were all about how to motivate and lead your people through these uncertain times:

  • “Managing through change, managing remote teams, identifying, and capitalising on change opportunities. How to lead through change … so basically change.”
  • “Leading remotely.  Keeping employees on board and motivated.”
  • “How to lead and maintain a strategic direction whilst everything around you seems tactical.”
  • “Leadership in uncertain times, providing support for people to help stabilise them.”

Currently, this is the greatest challenge to leadership that’s been faced for decades. It’s throwing a lot of standards and old ways out of the window – leaders will have to change, some completely, their way of doing things.

Ideas to help you manage and lead through change

Some overarching suggestions, from McKinsey, which we’ve summarised:

  • Be caring, curious, and positive, which is hard to do when you’re in a state of threat or fear, and when self-protection becomes an overwhelming instinct. Hard, but necessary.
  • Stop, pause, breathe, and remind yourself to be genuinely interested in what’s going on for others. Both of these create connection, which shifts the dynamic to positivity and cooperation.
  • Be a role model – taking care of yourself, get enough sleep, take necessary breaks
  • Don’t sacrifice yourself for the greater good because it may do more damage than help.
  • Leaders aren’t supposed to do all the jobs. Value your team to succeed at their jobs.
  • If you have your finger in every pie, you’re probably not doing your job.
  • This might be a good time to review working habits, attend fewer meetings, make fewer functional decisions, and create the time to focus on the bigger picture. Act now, change now.

And what appears to be the most impactful leadership activity?

To define a clear and shared vision for the future, and then mobilise everyone in pursuit of that vision.

This doesn’t mean in the ‘New World’ because that’s difficult to forecast, this is about defining what ‘Your Business Name 2.0’ needs to look like, by Christmas or by the end of October. Remember, a vision doesn’t have to be far in the future. A shared vision or shared sense of purpose is the strongest predictor of organisational-leadership effectiveness, engagement, organisational citizenship, culture mobilisation, and even product innovation.

The biggest challenge of all – where to start…

Our survey shows there’s so much for a business owner or leadership team to face right now. The biggest challenge has been and will continue to be, how to make sense of things and to decide what to do first.

This new world is creating a disturbing mix of personal and leadership challenges across a whole spectrum of areas. You can see from the replies they cover people issues, strategic ones, internal political ones, prioritisation ones, and most importantly personal management and leadership skills – all of which people are having to change and adapt.

What comes through strongly for us is the importance of how to decide what things are the most important and what decisions and steps to take, in what sequence, and why.

When things are so uncertain, ‘where to start’ becomes crucial. So, as well as getting the facts and data (see above) – prioritisation methods; the ability to find and analyse the (right) data; making decisions that are ‘directionally correct’; how to determine fall back positions (‘what ifs’) and similar topics have become very important processes and skills to develop. There’s a new course content being created here for leadership development.

Clients who have developed a more flexible approach and become more comfortable with ambiguity and changing direction more quickly if things have not worked out as planned seem to have weathered better. Building personal resilience is key.

No decision is worse than a poor one. ‘Fail Fast’ from Agile methodology is noticeable – make the decision and move, with the option to move on and change if needed and with the lessons learned. Progress forward, even if it’s been slow is better than standing still.  

Working on your business is more important than ever

Most of the thorny issues now are centred around the strategic (and some tactical) elements of running the business in these circumstances, and they look like being the longer-term ones too.

Our guidance to any business leader is to try harder than ever to focus ON the business and where it’s going – making the right moves in the market, operationally and competitively, and developing the organisation that is fit for tomorrow’s world.

What changes to strategy and vision for the business might be required – and that hated word these days – what ‘pivots’ might be required to set things up for the medium term?

For some of you, that will be how to weather the recessionary pressures that are coming and to ‘batten down the hatches’ for survival. For others, it’s how to leap ahead of weakened competition and stay ahead long term. Yet others are finding granular details like possible defaulted payments from customers and in contracts the clear and present danger which needs mitigating against urgently.

The key common factor here is to not continue to be bogged down in the detailed running of your business. This has been necessary in the firefighting mode that had to be in place as the crisis started and reached its peak, but now is the time to get out of the trenches and look around, make the right larger-scale decisions and moves and stay focussed on a longer-term horizon, even beyond a recession.

Your Business Strategy, Mission, and Vision needs a critical review. The distinctive activities that have differentiated your business to date may have to be updated or even removed, or reprioritised.

ON the business, not IN it. That’s the key.

We wish you the very best of luck and really hope this helps. Watch out for future blogs covering these challenges in more detail.

Thanks to all those who completed our survey. We’re glad to hear you appreciate our content, and we’ve listened to your comments about how you value the practical tips, and all the stories from your peers. We’ll use this feedback to help us keep offering inspiration and practical know-how for your business during these uncertain times, and beyond!

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