Strange Days Have Found Us
American business is facing a massive reorganization. Executives used to feeling in control are now awaiting a verdict, hoping for a temporary pay cut and hoping it isn’t a pink slip.
The problem isn’t just the problem. It’s the uncertainty that triggers the fear and anxiety, because we no longer can support the illusion of control we have been nurturing. Those of us business owners who have the luxury of continuing operations are instead only having tense conversations with customers, suppliers and vendors. We are adjusting our forecasts for the second quarter. We are making new economic models and planning scenarios, hoping for a quick recovery and praying that the other shoe does not drop.
We should be grateful, because we are the ones who can affect the most change.
Let’s consider the idea of “flattening the curve” as a metaphor for business. If people expand their distance and limit social interaction, the problem doesn’t vanish, but it becomes manageable and buys us time to adapt. Similarly, if we rush into the grocery store, clear the shelves of toilet paper, cleaning products and even water, then we perpetuate fear and panic, which triggers other people to come in and buy out what’s left. Fear of powerlessness descends into an ever-increasing cycle of panic and irrational behavior. If you’re still on Facebook, you know what I’m talking about. None of this contributes to stability, as consumer confidence plummets below the necessary losses we have to incur due to protective measures. Our fear and anxiety makes what could have been a manageable problem much less manageable as we react to ideas of how bad things could be, rather than how they are.
The point here is not about managing the disease, nor home economics. This is about the importance of how all of us behave at this very moment, especially business owners…
Allow me to use my own industry (Media) as a microcosm for most industries. As the Owner/Operator of an Advertising Agency, I have the benefit of seeing across dozens of industries as businesses react to the crisis. Some companies need immediate release from existing contracts because they are no longer able to operate. Networks (Suppliers) appear to be very understanding and accommodating in these instances. Most companies, however, live in the middle. Business is down. There is uncertainty. And there is fear that the losses may be great, so they rationalize with terms like “hunker down” and cancel what contracts they can in an effort to stave off dreaded losses in the coming quarter. And what a great card to play, when vendors want to help and accommodate hardship, but who are they to decide what is hardship and what is greed?
Only last year, didn’t the “Business Roundtable” announce that the purpose of a business was not just to serve shareholders, but rather “Stakeholders” — including “dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers”?
Let me be clear: if you are using this moment to hoard resources, and exploiting the fact that the world is suffering so your profits don’t dip in the next 90 days, then how are you any better than the person who showed up at the grocery store last Tuesday and cleared out all of their toilet paper? You won’t singlehandedly do decades worth of damage to what was an extraordinary economy, but you certainly won’t be helping the cause. In fact, you may unknowingly disrupt your own supply chain, and eventually people will be terminated due to your overreaction and fear.
That is not to say we should stand idly by and do nothing to adapt our businesses to our present circumstances. But on behalf of the hundreds, thousands, or millions of people who live downstream from your decisions, please consider that there is a better way.
If you purchase a product or service from a supplier, and you know that supplier has been forced to forfeit significant revenues due to other customers who are now unable to operate, should you crush them in negotiation for immediate gain? Is it possible that in their new present circumstances, they will work with you to provide an advantage via pricing or surplus inventory to support you and minimize losses as you hold steady as a partner? Of course they will. In a moment like this, it is not the time to gouge.
It can be argued that we are several generations removed from knowing true economic hardship in this country. We may have our chance to catch up very soon. Suddenly, we have companies – real people – experiencing real hardship unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetime. It need not be so. We don’t need to hog the respirator. We don’t need to hoard the toilet paper. We don’t need to kill contracts as a knee jerk reaction to what still could be a temporary issue. What we do need is to see this moment for what it is: an opportunity to demonstrate wisdom as we control what we can, without clutching more tightly than we need to. That starts with our behavior in our lives and in our work. We need to take it one day at a time.
In our respective fields, this moment is a test of our leadership. How we respond to this test may have dramatic consequences as to how soon and how well we recover. It will say volumes about our character. We all need a shot of courage and what we used to call “American Ingenuity”.
The World Needs Heroes
Take heart. There are real heroes emerging who are already taking this difficult moment in history to help the people around them, and through creativity, finding themselves helped along the way. I have the pleasure of working with one of these individuals, who found a way to use his company to respond quickly and pivot their operation in order to help. Bambee is providing free HR support to companies struggling to navigate these strange days. Will there be a good ROI on this for his business? We can’t know that yet. Take a listen to the message of my friend Allan Jones, who has the courage to be part of the solution and stick his neck out while others retract and retreat.
This is a chance to reject cowardice and show courage so that we can come out of this stronger than we went in. Choose to let faith conquer fear, and become the hero we need to flatten the economic curve. Come on, American business! Let’s do our bit.