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Leading a Small Business Through COVID and Other Troubling Times

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Leading a Small Business Through COVID and Other Troubling Times

With the coronavirus shaking up the economy and upending the day-to-day operations of businesses, it’s perhaps more critical than ever that corporate CEOs and small business owners summon up all their leadership skills.

Employees who usually are just down the hall are now working remotely from home. The supply chain is disrupted. And customers and clients may be changing their spending habits.

But, as important as business savvy and financial expertise can be in riding out all the economic effects of the pandemic, other traits also come into play and may be just as essential, says Marsha Friedman, a successful entrepreneur who still leads a business she launched three decades ago.

“One of those essential traits is courage,” says Friedman, founder and president of News & Experts (www.newsandexperts.com), a national PR firm. “Thirty years ago when I started my company, I probably would never have said it takes courage to lead a small business, but without it, I assure you, you’ll fail.”

Friedman, who is also the ForbesBooks author of Gaining the Publicity Edge: An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Growing Your Brand Through National Media Coverage, understands this first-hand. Her firm, like many businesses, endured tough economic times after the 9/11 attacks. Revenue dropped and bankruptcy loomed as a real possibility.

“I had to figure out how to turn my company around,” she says. “It took courage, endurance, and perseverance, but I knew I could not go back, so I had no choice but to go forward.” 

Courage is just one of what Friedman calls the 5 C’s for building and maintaining a successful business through the good times and bad. “They’re the guiding principles I’ve learned through the ups and downs and all the mistakes,” she says. “They can work during the difficulties we now face as well.”

In addition to courage, Friedman’s other C’s are:

Caring . First, care enough about yourself and your dreams to believe you can achieve success even in these daunting times, Friedman says. “Just as important is caring about your staff and creating a positive work environment for them despite the troubles we face,” she says. “Be supportive of them throughout this situation that is bringing additional stress to everyone’s lives.” Finally, a good business leader cares about customers, Friedman says. Be willing to listen to their concerns, take responsibility for mistakes, and correct them.

Confidence. Most people have faced and overcome challenges in life. The confidence that allowed them to prevail over those challenges needs to be brought into play in business more than ever right now, Friedman says. “Believing you can reach for and achieve your short-term and long-term goals is essential to getting you there,” she says. “Maintaining your confidence is important to get through these unsettling times.”

Competence. It’s critical to stay up on the disruptions in your industry that the coronavirus is causing. “If you’re forced to downsize, this may be the time to reorganize and tap into the skills and abilities of your remaining team that are different from the roles you hired them for,” Friedman says. “That’s why it’s always important to have hired competent people who you can rely on no matter what the situation.”

Commitment . Stay dedicated to your goals no matter how difficult that becomes during these challenging conditions. Friedman says there may be times when this will be not only difficult, but downright painful. That was the case for her during those tough times after the 9/11 attacks. “I had to make drastic cuts, including letting go beloved employees.” she says. “But I never wanted to suffer a failure, and so I stayed committed to the goal and succeeded in pulling the business through those rough times.” 

“As we face the current challenges, you have to stay the course, remain positive and show caring for everyone related to your business,” Friedman says. “Most of all, no matter how dismal it seems right now, you need to have confidence that you are going to get through it.”

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Marsha Friedman, ForbesBooks author of Gaining the Publicity Edge: An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Growing Your Brand Through National Media Coverage, is a successful entrepreneur and public relations expert with nearly 30 years’ experience developing publicity strategies for celebrities, corporations and professionals in the field of business, health and finance.  Using the proprietary system she created as founder and President of News & Experts (www.newsandexperts.com), an award-winning national public relations agency, her firm secures thousands of top-tier media placements annually for its clients.  The former senior vice president for marketing at the American Economic Council, Marsha is a sought-after advisor on PR issues and strategies, who shares her knowledge both as a popular speaker around the country and in her Amazon best-selling book, Celebritize Yourself.

3 Types of Stories Every Leader Should Master

The fact that people are wired to react so strongly to stories should motivate business leaders to develop their storytelling skills. But what business situations call for a story?

You might have guessed the answer—it depends. It depends on both the situation and what you’d like to accomplish in the situation. The situation might be a staff meeting where you’re introduced to the people on your new team, for example. As their new boss, your objective might be to get them to like and respect you and to start dismantling the barriers of mistrust and uncertainty. Another situation might be that members of your team have lost enthusiasm for their work, and your objective is to restore their engagement and give them purpose, so they understand the “why” of what they’re spending most of their waking hours doing. Or maybe valuable members of your team feel unappreciated or don’t get the credit they deserve. In that situation, your objective may be to reinforce or highlight certain norms and behaviors with your stories and to draw positive attention to them.

Below are three types of stories that every leader should master. My hope is that they inspire readers to dig deeper into this topic and to identify and cultivate potential stories that can help you accomplish important objectives.

1. Stories We Tell Ourselves

We constantly assemble bits and pieces of information of what we observe around us and automatically turn them into stories that tend to reinforce our long-developed beliefs. If those stories are positive ones—you admire a colleague and tend particularly to notice the admirable things she does, you pride yourself on your own punctuality and pat yourself on the back whenever you find yourself (again!) to be the first person to show up at a meeting—these perspectives are often uplifting and empowering.

The problem comes when we tell ourselves negative stories. For instance, if I feel that the people around me are lazy and incompetent, the stories I create will be based on morsels of data that “conform” that belief. Or if I feel that I don’t measure up to others’ expectations, the stories I create will reinforce this self-assessment, prominently featuring my mistakes, my failures, and others’ expressions of disappointment in me. And so a vicious loop is created where negative perceptions—including of the self—determine the stories we tell ourselves, which in turn play out in full color to reinforce these perceptions.

Clearly these aren’t productive narratives, nor do they serve the people and organizations we lead. And while I’m aware that years of cognitive behavioral therapy may sometimes be the most effective solution to modify such beliefs-and-values–powered narratives, I’d like to suggest that we have the option to intervene any time we recognize (self-awareness!) the unproductive nature of the stories we tell ourselves.

It’s clear that the stories we tell ourselves have an impact not just on our own behavior, but also on our engagement with others and in turn on their perceptions of us as leaders, colleagues, and partners. By carefully examining our dominant narratives and making sure they contribute positive value to our and others’ lives, we’re one step closer to wielding real influence with the power of storytelling.

2. Stories We Tell Others About Ourselves

Whether you are a leader joining a new team, or a job candidate in the first round of interviews, or someone meeting a potential new client for the first time, the stories you tell about yourself often set the tone for how the relationship will unfold, if it does, that is. Which are the right stories in such scenarios? It’s hard to go wrong with stories that illustrate your humility, good judgment, integrity, and expertise and experience. As for what to emphasize, putting yourself firmly into the shoes of your audience should provide clues. The needs and expectations of the people in your audience will, of course, vary, depending on the context of the meeting and their future goals as they involve you.

For instance, if you are the new boss meeting the members of your team for the first time, you know they’ll wonder about your leadership style and how you’ll treat them. Acknowledge this and share a personal story or two that show you empathize—maybe from when you met your boss for the first time. Mention the lessons you’ve learned in managing others and make sure to highlight any mistakes from which you’ve grown. Share examples of how you’ve navigated new cultures in the past—organizational or regional—and what you’re hoping to learn in this next stage with their help. This shows humility, humanizes you, and reduces the power distance that can hamper the open and honest dialogue that builds trust.

If your audience—whether a group or an individual—is looking to engage you for your expertise, share stories that illustrate how you’ve delivered results or solved similar problems for others. Mention the challenges you encountered along the way and how you met them successfully—even if it took a few attempts to get it right. This is also an elegant way to share your strengths without bragging about your accomplishments.

When others want to get to know us, they aren’t just looking for the content on our LinkedIn profile. They want to know the real us to determine whether we’re trustworthy and whether associating with us will be of positive or negative value to them. That’s why recruiters and hiring managers no longer have qualms about digging into our social media pro les and online musings to evaluate our reputation and our judgment.

And judgment is key whenever we share personal information. Faulty judgment can result in some awkward moments if not lasting reputational harm.

Faulty judgment in personal stories isn’t always this glaring. But if you are unsure of how your stories might land, run them first by people you trust. In the end, with personal stories less is more and humility is better.

3. Stories We Tell Our Teams or Organizations

The type of storytelling that is intrinsic to successful leadership is the ability to tell compelling stories of the future, to articulate a vision, to both internal and external audiences. Leaders need to master another kind of story too—this kind is about organizational values.

Whatever the management goal, there are storytelling strategies that can help further it. A former Facebook director of engineering, Bobby Johnson, once saw the need for a cultural shift in the company’s infrastructure team. Although many of his engineers were drawn to exciting new projects and innovations, Johnson knew that other Facebook engineers, the ones who worked behind the scenes to ensure that the existing systems ran faster and better than before, also did critical work. He wanted to highlight these “unsung heroes,” both to honor them and to get more engineers interested in their less glamorous but nonetheless essential work. To accomplish this, he would take every opportunity—in one-on-ones, in meetings, and in group e-mails—to share stories of important fixes that these day-to-day engineers made and to publicly praise them.

Similarly, if you want people to speak up more in meetings and challenge each other, share a story of how a lone dissenting voice was able to change your mind about a decision you’d made, and how this wouldn’t have happened if the person hadn’t felt comfortable in challenging you. Or if you want to increase collaboration among teams, share a story about two teams who decided to join forces and whose combined creativity and brainpower led to important breakthroughs for the organization. And if it’s courage and risk taking you want to promote, highlight stories of risk-taking colleagues—and include their failures, to make the point that learning from mistakes is just another way forward.

As you can see in the three types of stories above, the formula for telling a story is simple. Decide which values you want to promote and which behaviors you want to encourage, and then make those traits the themes of your stories, and include characters who demonstrate the desired traits. Do these stories have to be true? It helps if they are, and it’s even better if your audience knows the protagonists. However, hypothetical scenarios can pack just as big a punch, as we’ve learned from neuroscience research and our own experiences from the myriad of stories that surround us.

Harrison Monarth is the CEO and Founder of Gurumaker and author of Executive Presence: The Art of Commanding Respect Like a CEO. An Executive Coach, he teaches C-suite leaders, senior executives, high potential managers and other top professionals effective leadership and positive behavior change for professional and organizational success. For more information, please visit, www.gurumaker.com and connect with Monarth on Twitter, @HarrisonMonarth and LinkedIn.