Keep Breathing

Uncertain times like we’re experiencing with the coronavirus outbreak can cause any of us to be concerned about the physical and financial well-being of ourselves and our loved ones. Let’s not kid ourselves. What we’re dealing with is serious stuff—not just from a health and safety perspective for our customers, our employees, and ourselves, but also from a financial perspective. It’s easy for people to feel worried and anxious.

At a recent staff meeting, I was telling the folks here at VMA that I’ve owned businesses for fifty years. And in those 50 years I’ve been through several economic upheavals and observed the impact they had on the people who experienced them.

The OPEC oil embargo of 1973 was the first to come to mind. This was global and seemed catastrophic at the time, with people sitting in long lines at gas stations, hoping there would still be gas left when they made it to the pump. Now people are waiting in long lines to buy toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

It’s during times of uncertainty that people look to their leaders for guidance. Here are three things you can do right now to bring a sense of calm to this otherwise uncertain situation.

  1. Project strong, confident leadership. This must come from you, and it includes both the words you use and the actions you take. This doesn’t mean acting like nothing’s happening or that it’s business as usual. It means making business decisions based on sound information from reliable sources. It means not abandoning a solid strategy you might already have in favor of a short-term opportunity or business threat.
  2. Communicate abundantly. Let’s be real. Most of us are not great communicators, so this will probably mean communicating in different ways than we have in the past. And it will invariably mean communicating more than we are comfortable doing. But it’s what our people and our customers want and need.
  3. Offer assurance to your people. Even as you have uncertainties of your own, your people need the assurance that you’re making the tough decisions that need to be made and that, together with their help, you are going to make it through.

This much I know: the current pandemic will come to an end, and when it does, we want to be sure we’ve done everything possible to come out further ahead.

I’m reminded of a scene from the film Cast Away. Toward the end of the movie the lead character, played by Tom Hanks, is sitting in his friend’s family room, trying to put the pieces of his life back together after being stranded on a remote island for four years. He comments to his friend, “I gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?”

The fact is that none of us knows what the tide will bring. But by demonstrating sound leadership, communicating clearly, and acting resolutely we dramatically increase the chances that it will be something good.

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