Dear Dan: I'm losing sleep worrying about business conditions and all the things that might go wrong. And the mood at my small company is depressed. How can I step it up a notch? - Sleepless
Dear Sleepless: Most small business owners are adept at adapting. By cutting costs, improving productivity, tweaking technology and better managing marketing, they can adjust to economic conditions as they change.
The current "Great Recession," however, is testing the ability of millions of small businesses to survive, let alone prosper. Once you've done everything you can think of to save money and stimulate sales, it might be time to fortify your business for the future by setting a leadership mindset that will help carry you through the tough times.
"Great leadership is everything" in running a business, says Quint Studer, author of the Wall Street Journal bestseller "Results That Last" (Wiley, 2007). "All other elements of success flow from it. Your leadership must be top-notch. If it isn't, you may not be around five years from now."
So what - exactly - can you do to get through the recession? Here are seven steps that will help fortify your business for the future:
1. First, nix the negative self-talk. Don't mope around biting your nails and dreaming up doomsday scenarios. "When you exist in a constant state of worry your negative state of mind infects everyone," says Studer. Creativity ceases. Forward motion stops. Small business leaders need to show by example that despite the economy, the business will pull through.
2. Develop a detailed get-through-the-recession plan. Sit down with other key people involved in your business - whether that's staff, outside advisors or maybe your spouse or accountant - and list your short- and long-term goals. Decide which are realistic and which aren't, and what else can be cut that's not absolutely necessary. Then communicate your plan to all employees. They need to know you are top of the situation.
3. Don't give fear a foothold. When you allow free-floating anxiety to permeate your business you are basically giving it your stamp of approval. If others express worry about declining sales or lost customers, don't just shrug it off or tell employees to hang in there. That indicates you share the worry. Instead, if someone shares a concern, ask them what - specifically - they are struggling with right now. Get specific. Engage the worried employee and ask what you can do to help.
4. Offer straight talk and transparency. Chronic secretive behavior by those who run a business (lots of closed-door meetings, for example), harms morale even when times are good. When they aren't, it's even worse. When you're making changes in response to an economic meltdown, transparency is vital. If employees believe you're hiding something, they'll assume the worst. Don't sugar coat the truth, says Studer.
5. Get and stay connected. Now is not a time to hide. Make yourself as visible and accessible as possible in your business - both to customers and employees. One way is to practice what Studer calls "rounding for outcomes." Just as a doctor might make hospital rounds to check on all his patients, you can make daily rounds to check on employees, clients, vendors or others with a stake in your success. This will help you gather front line intelligence, spot problems or successes and determine where improvements might be made. "Rounding helps you build a strong emotional bank account with employees," says Studer. "While that's always important, it's especially critical in a down economy."
6. Talk up your organization. Negative talk only makes a bad situation worse. "That's why you should only say great things about your business and your employees, whether you're talking to outsiders, clients or employees themselves," notes Studer. And insist that everyone else at your business does the same. Never tell a client that business is slow - even if it is. And by all means avoid expressing doubt about your ability to weather the economic storm.
7. Look for creative ways to keep top performers. When times are tough, losing your best employees could be a disaster. But a big raise probably isn't realistic. Still, you can offer perks such as flex time, partial work-from-home schedules or even access to a "chore runner" to handle personal tasks such as picking up the dry cleaning or stopping at the market.
And don't forget to be a leader for your customers as well. Never presume you know everything that's important to them. Always ask. Individualized customer service is more crucial now than ever.