How can your business re-emerge transformed after downtime?
In the world of accounting it’s been said the only sure things in life are death and taxes. Respectfully, I offer a third: Disruption.
With a tax extension deadline stutter, stock market roller coast, and COVID-19 this the first time in modern history that nearly all businesses are being impacted at once. In the US, and multiple other countries, we’ve been not only encouraged, but in many cases required to leave our established workplaces to work from home for six-plus weeks to practice social distancing and to shelter in place.
I would maintain, however, that any downtime, whether planned or imposed, creates the opportunity for your business to re-emerge stronger, better, and ideally transformed. Knowing this, the principles of emerging from a downtime are evergreen. They may differ in length, severity, and triggering event but disruption comes to us all, which makes the steps for leveraging a downtime, in a very real way, universal. To that end, I have the following suggestions:
Do not ignore the “stages of grief,” but move through them quickly
When disruption happens, we, our organizations and clients, and their own organizations are grieving. The level of grief is proportionate to the element of surprise and the size of the catastrophic event and the extent of preparation. An on-site tragedy or accident, security breach, loss of a major account or a technology disruption will all bring about the universal stages of grieving: disbelief, anger, bargaining, depression, and eventually acceptance.
In the current pandemic this is the giant issue that every one of us must address and respect within ourselves, our teams and our client’s organizations. We move from disbelief – “No, this is overblown, it’s a hoax, this can’t really be happening,” to anger (“It’s China’s fault!” “It’s the government’s fault!”). Then we move to bargaining (“We can adhere to NNN guidelines, but we need YYY assistance and must be allowed to reopen our businesses now.”). Next, we hit depression (“When will this be over? I just can’t take this),” and finally acceptance.
As a firm leader or engagement manager, you are likely wired to optimism, with a bias toward action. “How do we maximize this universal experience to our advantage?” is a guiding principle that propels your increasing success. But it is important in the process to remember your employees and your customers are not you. It will be vital that you not ignore or minimize their personal responses. You should encourage and support them in processing the situation as productively as possible while allowing for the very real need to respect their requirement to go through this experience in their own way.
You must get your team’s buy in on how the firm will emerge stronger from the disruption. Pushing your teams and clients too hard on the blessings that disruption can bring them could be a sure prescription to an even bigger disaster right now. You must respect the process as you introduce them to the bigger, better possibilities that innovation can bring.
Ask the Golden Question: So what does this open up for you?
As your team is able to move to acceptance of current realities, you can move them more quickly to the beauty that lies in any kind of a pause or disruption as you answer the key questions of “So what does this open up for you and for the firm right now?”
Former Navy SEAL Larry Yatch, now a business and leadership advisor, talks about the ways knowledge allows us to channel our physiological responses to fear (based on perceived loss of control) to regain our control and to engage in correlated action to bring about organizational or industry change.
It is also interesting to note that more than half of the Fortune 500 and S&P indexed companies began during economic downturns by innovators proactively addressing the world’s biggest needs.
Be the source of knowledge and encouragement to your team and the trusted advisor to your clients who can show them how the current disruption of the world as we’ve known it presents even greater opportunities to step forward as a solution to the newest set of critical needs.
For an accounting firm, how do you manage critical and confidential functions for clients when workflow isn’t confined to a single or even several physical or geographic locations? How do you maintain compliance and safety? How do you protect the efficiency of workflow and deadlines when everyone involved is dispersed?
Automation is vital, of course, but new aspects of automation become more critical still, such as network bandwidth, the new risks to security when employees must step out of company’s secure network Wi-Fi from personal or mobile machines. Compliance issues multiply when you enter the risk of personal information being overheard or overseen on a home-based worker’s screen.
These are the areas that allow your firm to lean in and step forward in a bigger and better way than before. You can make the process seamless for clients while also providing them with up-to-the-minute business intelligence, for example, on the way they can evolve their own products and services to meet a new set of needs for their own customers.
As a real-world example: a larger accounting firm that was formerly struggling after an acquisition was able to step forward with unprompted phone calls to clients to provide them with advice on how to succeed in utilizing the new funding resources from the SBA. In a stressful time, the firm that had frustrated its clients a year before became the trusted resource its current clients could not imagine being without.
“What e’re thou art, act well thy part.”
The Gaelic proverb that’s served as a motto for living since the time of Shakespeare has equal applicability now. Every firm has the ability, regardless of your size and focus, to emerge from a downtime as the epitome of excellence for the clients and sector you serve.
Likewise, with a pause in action you gain the opportunity to question all that you’ve done in the status quo for opportunities to evolve further or even to enact an all-out paradigm shift as you survey the landscape in a time of high change and with the clearer heads that are unfettered by the rush of former day to day tasks. Even partners that formerly fought change management are ready to champion change.
“Act well thy part” can carry another meaning as well, as a business founder in the midst of the pandemic recently noted. As the world we know was collapsing in pieces around us, this business founder, Jay Kamhi of Jay Kamhi Toys, was as frightened as anyone. He noticed that everyone around him – suppliers, dealers, and salespeople were looking about in search of a leader to let them know what to do.
There was no such person who inherently existed. In a case like this, without precedence, no one knew what they should do. As it happens, Kahmi is an individual who enjoys acting and had found success in capturing the attention of others in sales presentations and on stage. So, he began to ask himself daily questions like, “If there were a great leader present right now, what would they be doing? What would I want and hope for from that individual? What would they act and sound like?”
By putting his mind in the role of observer, Kahmi was able to overcome his fear and rise to the occasion to give best counsel to the people depending on his best thinking and action to secure their near and longer-term livelihoods and careers. He was able to step up in surprisingly masterful ways.
Since disruption is inevitable, learn to adapt and to thrive.
Finally, if we can accept that the inevitabilities in life include death, taxes, and now disruption, it lies upon us all to act better now and become better prepared. Yes, the current pandemic, while predicted as an eventual occurrence by some, remained a risk that seemed perhaps as remote as an invasion by aliens.
But it happened. And now that it has happened, we know with far greater certainty the danger of a pandemic is not only clear and present, but there is genuine likelihood it could happen again. Scientists are predicting, in fact, the current pandemic will continue to ebb and swell in additional phases. Policy makers, the media, and citizens interpret these situations in differing ways. Regardless, we are armed with new information and ideally, are honing the new structures and skills to adapt and to thrive that will allow us to address similar and future disruptions with a better level of resilience and success than before.
The choice is ours. But with a clear mindset and proactive action, we can equip ourselves to surmount, not only the current pandemic, but to also use this and all future disruptions to emerge stronger as individuals and organizations than ever before.