Moving Forward in a Time of Crisis: An open letter to growth company CEOs and leadership teams

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Moving Forward in a Time of Crisis: An open letter to growth company CEOs and leadership teams

Summary:

As a current board member, advisor and investor, as well as former CEO of numerous growth companies, I would like to share some thoughts on the COVID-19 crisis that may be helpful as you consider ways to lead, manage and drive your companies in the coming months.

We’ve witnessed a natural and significant degradation of productivity across the entire economy due to the uncertainty that this virus has created, exacerbated by the added impact that working remotely is having on us and our teams. As a result, it is imperative that we recognize the unique, once-in-a-generation challenges impacting us, and quickly evolve the ways in which we lead and manage our companies and people. While CEOs and leadership teams cannot solve the broader virus crisis, you certainly can address how you proactively respond and guide your companies forward.

Your ability to rise to this challenge will be a critical success factor for how your company performs during this time that you and your team are physically separated from each other. As I’ve shared with many of my colleagues over time, the greatness of a business leader is not how you conduct yourself when you are successful, but how you distinguish yourself by getting up off of your knees when you stumble. The COVID-19 crisis will absolutely cause all of us to stumble, but there is no reason to fail unless we allow these challenges to overwhelm us.

Here are some initial thoughts on several proactive steps we can all take to navigate these difficult times:
  • Set the tone for your business — The CEO and leadership team have always set the tone for their businesses, and this period is no exception. Think about the tone you need to take, the underlying messages you wish to communicate, and the stakeholders you have to reach. Leverage multiple technology-enabled channels, including emails, video-enabled town halls, group messaging and targeted calls, to maximize the number of people you reach effectively on an ongoing basis.
  • Prepare for the worst scenario — While we should all hope for the best, we owe it to our people, customers and shareholders to prepare for the worst scenario we can envisage. Don’t get trapped into denial thinking that the Coronavirus period will be short with a rapid v-shaped recovery. This is certainly not “business as usual.” Be prepared to adjust business priorities quickly to not only survive the immediate crisis, but also make sure that you are building the capabilities needed to take advantage of the inevitable growth that will emerge when the crisis subsides. No one knows how long the downturn will last, but we should be prepared to operate in this “new normal” for at least the next several months.
  • Remember that cash is king — The economic shock may negatively impact your company’s short-term cash flow dramatically, so you need to anticipate this and be prepared. Certainly find ways to cut back on unnecessary spending where possible; however, be mindful that making draconian cuts may rob you of the critical people and capabilities you’ll need to grow your business later. Find the right balance for your business at this point in time.
  • Strengthen your leadership cadence — Just because your team is working remotely doesn’t mean this is an excuse for abandoning the management cadence, structure and discipline that you’ve worked so hard to put in place. Now is the time to strengthen your commitment to leadership meetings, group chats, performance metric dashboards, checkup calls, and other management processes that will keep your team aligned, motivated and focused on performance.
  • Take care of your team — Acknowledge that everyone is going through a traumatic experience, and that this adjustment period is taking a heavy toll on all of us. Find ways to reach out to your people, understand what they need, and to the degree possible, provide the support that you can. Don’t lose this opportunity to be there for your employees, as this will be paid back as dividends in the future.

On a personal note, I have now been working remotely for several weeks for the first time in my professional career. Not being able to go physically into an office made me feel a bit off balance at first, and I noticed that my leadership abilities, communication style, and work rhythm had all been impacted. Recognizing that, I became more determined than ever to adjust proactively to this new world of remote working, and to evolve my professional behavior to reflect the challenges we now face. This is paying off in terms of greater productivity, more flexibility, and a renewed sense of purpose.

So please, as a CEO or leadership team member, remember and build upon what got you here in the first place — your scrappy, can-do attitude, focus on driving results, and ability to lead and manage organizations. Evolving how we lead, manage and drive results is incredibly difficult, even during the best of times. But now more than ever, we all need to rise to the challenge and seize this moment of time, for the benefit of the customers, people and shareholders who are all so important to our companies.

I am confident that we will not only get through this period, but will emerge stronger and more prepared to tackle anything the future brings. In the meantime, stay focused and be safe.
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John M. Connolly

John is a board member, senior advisor, and investor in multiple growth companies. Over the years, his roles have included venture capital operating partner, founder, CEO, interim CEO, chairman, and general manager. John’s passion is partnering with leadership teams and boards to address the strategic and operational opportunities that enable companies to accelerate their growth and build successful, valuable companies.