Survival & Thrival: An Update from the Frontlines

Kurt Wilkin

The second weekend in March unfolded like no other weekend in my lifetime. I know everyone has their story about how COVID-19 first impacted them.

My story goes like this: My family was preparing to go skiing in Park City, Utah, when everything started getting cancelled. The NBA, the NCAA Tournament, and local high school sports were all gone by the end of the week. We were sure the ski resorts would close after we saw that Disneyland and seemingly every other place where people gather in large groups had closed. But the ski resort assured us they planned to stay open (“and the snow is great!”), so we headed out to Utah, determined to have some fun to distract us from the news.

We got a day of skiing in on Saturday and then were abruptly told that the ski resort was closing indefinitely, beginning the following morning. We then enjoyed a fun game of trying to find other ski resorts that were still open. It was kind of like whack-a-mole. Every time we found one open and bought lift tickets, we would later find out that they decided to close after all. That night, it became clear that the situation was much larger and more important than us losing our spring break trip. Which we now lovingly refer to as “Spring Broke 2020.”

As the situation evolved—rapidly and dramatically—over that weekend, I quickly moved into solution mode. I started brainstorming things I could do to help those around me. As corny as it may sound, I immediately thought of my purpose statement, honed during my work with Stagen’s Integral Leadership Program. My purpose is, “To challenge and inspire those around me.” In these times, what exactly does that mean? How can I leverage my gifts? Well – I’m a connector, a facilitator, and I have the ability to challenge and inspire. I thought about the times that I’ve needed help in the past—with either personal or business struggles. What would have helped me most in times of crisis?

One idea kept coming back to me. I’ve been a member of Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) for 14 years. YPO’s goal is to help members become better leaders and better people through open sharing and trust among peers. One way YPO achieves this goal is through forums, in which leaders build deep relationships and help each other through life and business by leveraging confidentiality, trust, respect, and sharing. I have been blessed to be part of an amazing forum. I find it invaluable, and it has helped me immensely in good times and bad.

Unfortunately, not every business leader has access to a group of peers. In the midst of such a life-changing event, these forums could be huge for leaders and entrepreneurs. So I leapt into action, getting to work connecting other leaders into makeshift forums. I committed to facilitate four 90-minute forums per week of 10-12 participants—for as long as we need to meet. I’ve scheduled sessions out for the next 12 weeks. Hopefully we will be ready to ride the upward wave out of this mess by then, but who knows?

We filled up quickly and, sadly, there’s a waiting list. I truly believe that these sorts of exchanges can be very impactful in helping us all get through this. And I thought maybe, just maybe, the content of these discussions could be beneficial to a much larger audience. As such, I decided I would also commit to sharing some of the points I’m preparing for this week’s forums. If you have thoughts or advice based on any of this, please feel free to shoot me an email, a tweet, or just share this post with your thoughts. This is our time. A time to come together as a community to share, inspire and help each other.

CEO Forums: Three discussion points for this week

Everyone participating in our forums are CEOs and leaders of middle-market companies. They come from a wide variety of geographies, industries, and sizes, but they are all dealing with the same set of issues—most likely very similar issues to the ones you are facing. This week’s sessions will focus on some of the major issues facing entrepreneurs and CEOs of middle market companies as we enter April—month two of COVID-19’s impact on the U.S.

Issue #1: How do we access cash made available via the federal stimulus package?
Late last week, the federal government passed The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The size and scope are unprecedented and could (and should!) be a huge lifeline for many companies. As you struggle with an astounding drop in customers and revenues as a direct result of the coronavirus shutdown, you should do everything you can to take advantage of this support package.

In our pilot session last week, one wise participant reminded us, “The cash may be nice but don’t count on the government!” The biggest topic for our groups this week will be navigating the bill. Your local banker is frantically trying to understand everything in the 1,500-page bill—they could be a wealth of information for you. Two of the best pieces I have seen about the bill and how to access the massive amounts of capital available include this internal document from an unnamed CPA firm and this one published by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They include answers to questions like: Am I eligible? What are lenders looking for? How much can I borrow? Will this loan be forgiven?

Issue #2: What can we do to be more scrappy? How can we shift our business model?
This will be different for everyone, but I encourage you to challenge your team. How can you repurpose underutilized resources to offer a new product or service? I’m sure you’ve heard stories of distilleries shifting their operations in order to produce hand sanitizer—can we ask them to produce toilet paper, too?!? Auto manufacturers are quickly shifting their lines in order to make ventilators and hotels are being converted into makeshift hospitals.

Inspired by much of the movement we’ve observed across industries, we challenged the team at HireBetter to be more scrappy. One of our differentiators coming into this crisis was our Strategic Talent Planning™ offering. This is our way of helping clients structure talent plans to build scalable teams to achieve their near-term and long-term growth initiatives. It is a fantastic tool for middle market companies who are growing rapidly. In the face of COVID-19, we repurposed it and have been offering Business Continuity Services to companies free of charge. This includes talent planning to “off board” employees and prepare the company to be leaner, but stronger, for when we eventually pull out of this.

We also shifted much of our Permanent Search team to support our Interim Services efforts. We have seen an uptick in the use of temporary executives, which I believe to be a sign of significant movement towards each of you and your company attempting to play offense – and not just wait for things to happen to you. A+ talent you may not have been able to afford before (and you probably don’t want to hire full-time right now) is suddenly affordable and available for three to six months, for example.

What steps have your companies taken to be more scrappy? Please let me know! I would love to share some good stories next week.

Issue #3: How do we seize this opportunity by playing offense?
Most of you are aware that I am an entrepreneur through and through. I don’t just want your business to survive the pandemic, but thrive on the other side. I strongly encourage you to play offense and not just defense.

There are several ways to do that—and some of them may surprise you. Think now is a bad time to upgrade talent in key areas? It’s not. I promise you there are people currently on the street, or someone who’s much more affordable now than they were a few weeks ago. For example, one of the CEOs in one of our forums shared with us a story of an employee who demanded a 20% pay increase a month ago. Last week, that same employee was begging to keep her job. Q2 will be a much different world than Q1.

The same could be said for M&A. Many forward-thinking CEOs are starting to think about buying that competitor, or the company that has a cool product but had unrealistic valuation. Tip of the day? That valuation probably came down significantly over the past three weeks!

CEOs should also be planning to invest in marketing. Many of your competitors will employ a “wait and see” approach to growth through this crisis. That is not going to work here. Sure, you’ll cut expenses in the near-term by pulling back your marketing spend, but that’s a short-term fix with long-term consequences. Bold leaders are looking at this as an opportunity to double down on marketing and play offense versus defense.

When will this be over?
Based on everything we know now… the real answer is we don’t know. Nobody knows. The best answer we have is that our cue that we are coming back as an economy is when we stop being afraid of the unknown. Maybe we’ve found a vaccine that treats the virus or we have quick and efficient testing so that we can easily test people and know where the virus is. The key to fighting the economic impact of this pandemic is to assuage our fears. We will get through this crisis.

In all of this chaos and crisis, I am looking forward to hearing from CEOs and entrepreneurs about the steps they are taking to get through it. These forums, and hopefully these summary posts, will play some part in helping others by providing an outlet for useful information, war stories, and just plain venting. What are your thoughts on my notes above? Got any ideas for future sessions? My inbox is always open.

Our goal at HireBetter is to help you navigate the unknown and assist in any way we can, especially when it comes to questions about your team and the health of your business. We’re constantly updating our curated list of business-related crisis resources, offering free business continuity consultations, and identifying the biggest challenges to business leaders and sharing our solutions with you. I’m also hosting weekly Q&A sessions on LinkedIn Live starting next week, so be sure to tune in. If you’d like someone to lean on as you find your way through this tough business landscape, please reach out to me or someone on my team. We’re here to help!

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