The battered survivor – lessons from a recession

January 12, 2009

The weeks have just tumbled by, the months seem to end before they have begun and in a flash the year is nearly gone…This has also been a year of unsurpassed peril for so many businesses – it feels like we have been blown through an imperfect storm. Whatever happened to the charted course we planned in January? Just being afloat now feels like a major triumph. I wonder if it will ever be the same again.

From the beginning of the year until now, almost every day has been a journey into the unknown, a journey where the old established certainties have been challenged as never before, but also a time for understanding the true value of the services we provide, what those services mean to us and what they mean to those who use us.

In the space of a short article like this it is all too easy to slip into the glib and the trite, but I do not want to write syrupy platitudes about opportunity and silver linings. The year has been, frankly, bloody tough; and most people still fortunate enough to be running a business are just thankful to have reached this point.

But I hope that we can all find a little time to pause for thought, to reflect on the challenges we have faced (many still to be faced) and that in our reflections it will be possible to take some positives from the fact that we have at least made it to this point.

In this article, through the prism of global recession impacting the biggest and smallest of enterprises, I would like to reflect on some of my learning points, on the issues I have had to confront in my business and in helping others and on the future as I see it.

Working through a recession – Ten lessons in life:

  1. Your clients need your help more than ever, but they almost certainly have less opportunity to use you; if you can tackle this conundrum successfully, it will prove to be the means to secure the relationships you need for the longer term. Be thoughtful, be innovative and be prepared to look at the widest sense of what value means to you.
  2. Now you must also be as inventive and thoughtful in the way you manage the costs of your business as you are in the way you try to deliver a service to clients. Save every penny, waste nothing and reward those who find ways to take costs out of a process without compromising its quality.
  3. Honesty in communications with your own team was always important; it is now essential. The hardest decision you ever take is to let someone go who has given of their best to your cause. It shakes you to the core and stays with you for ever; but it is part of being in business and your whole team (those who go and those who stay) will value your honesty, transparency and integrity in the way these decisions are handled.
  4. Cutting back on diversionary activities and focussing on the things that drive income or reduce costs are the only priorities that matter. Do things because they are worth doing and do not waste time chasing vanities. Any activity has a cost, so ensure the investment of your time is properly harnessed to a sense of the return that you assess will follow.
  5. Being a good customer to your suppliers is an imperative to help you run your business well. However big or small your operation, some of your suppliers will depend on you. Be a good customer, manage your payments well, keep your promises and allow relationships that support you to work to their optimum.
  6. Giving some time to a cause that matters to you is a renewing experience when the market is so tough. Some of the causes you hold dear (the charities, the initiatives and the issues) in these hard times will struggle and may even fail. Give them some of your time, invest in their needs a little and do not let something precious fall by the wayside that you could have helped survive.
  7. Trusting your judgement and driving for change will help you take steps forward when others will stay stuck in old ways of thinking and doing. Change is hard enough to manage, we all know that, but when change is thrust upon us we have to trust our instincts more; taking steps forward down an uncertain path is nearly always better than being paralysed by assessing options.
  8. Never cut a corner on a matter where your judgment, professionalism and integrity are intrinsically linked to perceptions of value. Trust is hard won, can be easily lost and, if it is lost, it will never be recovered. Whatever the temptation might be to do a job that is less good than your instinct tells you is necessary…please resist.
  9. Deliver on your promises; it is and always has been the only sure way to succeed. Now you must do this even if it costs you money in the short term. When better times (hopefully) return and more normal levels of activity are resumed, how you behaved in these dreadfully difficult days will speak for you.
  10. Plan for your success. Surviving the last twelve months is in itself a significant and important success in its own right. It is probably also fair to surmise that if you have managed to run a business in the past year, then you can certainly be successful in a more benign environment. Now therefore is the time to note the lessons you have personally learned and to plan to be a winner in the months and years to come.

As you embark on another potentially treacherous year, I hope the winds of change bring you a safer passage. Bon voyage and take care.

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