Any time anybody makes big plans, they might take several factors into consideration. When people decide to have children, when people decide to move to a new country, when individuals decide to open a business, they operate with the information that is currently available. They plan based on trends, history, and likely events. None of that accounts for a pandemic. Imagine how many individuals just bought a home, or just moved to a new country, or just took on a new job, or just opened their own business…all to have a pandemic dash their plans. A pandemic traditionally makes any of those life changes harder but might be the hardest on a small business owner.
Driving around and seeing all of the “Grand opening” signs covered quickly by “Business for sale” signs in our neighborhood has been incredibly heartbreaking. That’s just the perspective of an onlooker. What of the business owner who put their life savings into opening that place? For many, it wasn’t just about making a profit but also about seeing a dream come true. The small businesses that have survived have had a few things going for them. Some have been long-beloved staples of the community, that neighbors rallied and fundraised for to keep them alive. Some were fortunate to get grants and loans. And some did something else entirely. By that I mean, they literally did something else entirely with their business: they pivoted. But how?
We spoke with Teneshia Warner (pictured above), founder and CEO of multicultural marketing and communications firm EGAMI Group and author of The Big Stretch about how businesses can (and often must) pivot, not just in a pandemic, but any time things get tough.
Knowing when it’s time to pivot
Warner says it might be time to pivot “If something happened in your industry that will potentially now jeopardize your business sector future-forward. This can be a trend that has happened in the industry. It can be a trend that has happened more globally but is impacting your industry [and] 2020 is a perfect example. If you think about how the pandemic impacted the travel industry, or how it impacted hotels, those are sectors that probably very early on in the pandemic could tell that potentially their business was going to be impacted based on what had happened in the world. You almost have to ask yourself the question, regardless of the business you’re in, how are trends that are occurring in the world going to impact my particular sector?”
Do a regular health check
Pandemic or no pandemic, Warner recommends doing frequent check-ups on the health of your business, keeping in consideration what’s going on in the world and your industry. “Even if we weren’t living in the pandemic, a good rule of thumb would be to at least on an annual basis do an overall business assessment where you’re not only doing a deep dive of who you’re servicing but also doing somewhat of an industry landscape assessment,” Warner says. “It’s forcing you to recognize how trends are impacting your business and how you should be innovating for that.” Warner reminds us that the impact of industry trends can be spotted early if you look often, stating they have a “ripple effect.”
Keep an eye on internal trends
“Of course there are other signs that changes should be made,” Warner says, explaining that the signs may exist within one’s company rather than within the industry or world at large. “Like if you’re seeing a downward trend, a loss of clients or customers, if you’re seeing a downward trend on cashflow and your margins. Really knowing what those industry benchmarks and metrics are that tie back to the health of your business and monitoring that data on a frequent basis, whether that’s weekly, monthly, or quarterly, based on your sector. Is there a downward trend that should warn you to start moving now to solutions to put in place to get in front of the downward trends?”
Warner spoke a bit about a commonality she found among businesses that survived and even thrived during the pandemic: They remained flexible. They didn’t only see one way to do things. “I really do feel that businesses that pivoted in the pandemic wrote their plans in pencil,” she says. “We know as leaders we’re running our companies off of annual plans. But writing those plans in pencil really does signal that you realize that the unexpected could potentially happen at any time. You’re expecting the unexpected. If your plans aren’t in ink but in pencil, you’re already poised to erase and find new paths forward.”
Determine what (and who) you have
Another part of a regular health check that prepares you for the unexpected is a process and personnel assessment. “As a small business owner, I was introduced to a system called Entrepreneur Operating System. EOS. It’s like infusing an infrastructure with process into a small business. By having that process instilled, it supports you in scaling the business. Many small business owners will hit a ceiling if they aren’t successful in infusing process and procedures to go to the next level,” Warner explains. “Part of the EOS system is about really making sure you have the right people in your organization. Right people, right seats. At least once a quarter, look at your business and assess what sorts of people and resources you need to accomplish the job at hand.”
“Get it, want it, capacity to do it” in employees
“What really determines success is the right people in the right seats,” Warner states. “Based on a job description, there’s something called GWC — get it, want it, capacity to do it. Get it is: we assess can this individual do the job. Do they have the skill set? The experience? Want it is: just because you have someone who has been doing a job for numerous years, you still need to have check-ins with that employee to determine if they still want this job. That’s where you look for a passion fit. If you don’t ask if they want it, you may have someone in a job they no longer want. Capacity is: does the employee have the bandwidth to perform the job?”
Check the capacity of your employees in a pandemic
“In a pandemic, when environments are getting really lean, you have to make sure you’re giving the employee the space and time to do the role. Do they have too much on their plate so they no longer have capacity to do that job in excellence?” Warner asks. “I’m having to live this every day. Right now, we have team members who get it and want it. But I know as a leader we have some capacity issues. We have to troubleshoot the capacity issues to make sure the employee is not overwhelmed.”
Repurpose what you have
With regards to the “Want it, get it, capacity for it” model, Warner says, “This helps you determine your staffing right now, and staffing for the future. You’ll have to ask, ‘As I pivot this business model, do I need to eliminate some roles? Create new ones?’ Then look within your organization to say ‘Who has the existing skills needed? Whether they’re currently doing the job or not, do they have skills that can be transferred to this new role? Or skills that can transfer based on where we’re now taking the business?’” Remember it’s much easier to repurpose the staff you already know and trust than to hire all new staff.
Keeping clients during the shift by being transparent
We asked Warner how to communicate to existing clients and customers that a change is happening in a way that keeps their trust and business. “The best relationships with clients and customers is grounded in partnership. I always tell our clients that we are their partners in purpose,” she says. “We are working with them to achieve their brand purpose in the world. But they’re also working with us to achieve our company’s purpose. If you think about this notion of being partners in purpose, what makes a great partner? Open communication. Being transparent. Creating environments where there can be two-way dialogues. Making sure you establish some of your partner parameters early on with clients is critical. So whether you’re introducing a new service, eliminating something, downsizing, whatever it may be, if you have established partner parameters where communication and transparency are a part of the relationship, then no one will be surprised.”
Ask for a performance review from customers
“It’s your role as a business owner to bring your clients with you on the journey. Check in with clients,” Warner says. “We check in quarterly. We say, ‘Talk to me about your goals, objectives…tell me the things I need to hear. Not just the good news. What are those opportunity areas you need me to hear in order to better serve you?’ I also use that as an opportunity to update them on what’s going on within our business and letting them know also what that means for them. Every client wants to know ‘What does this mean for me?’ Make sure as you pivot your business, you know what the value proposition is for your customers that you’re currently servicing.”