I had one of those weeks last week where you just don’t stop – I’m sure you know the sort of week I mean. It’s not uncommon for small business owners to find themselves immersed in what seems like unending activity – especially in challenging times – and while we all expect hectic weeks from time to time, if we find them turning in to hectic months then it is time for a reset.
When Saturday evening came around I realised I needed to step back and take some of my own advice – the advice I share with members and boards when we are discussing ways to balance the demands of running a business and living a life outside the world of work.
A good place to start is strengthening your connections – something The Alternative Board is all about. Our network of peer-to-peer boards brings like-minded business owners together so their many challenges and opportunities can be tackled. It also brings accountability as board members keep track of how their peers are doing and ask them about the progress they’ve made as a result of the discussions – something that really helps when balance needs restoring or a new perspective needs to be found.
Often when we are busy we lose track of the reasons why we are running a business in the first place so take a moment to remind yourself of your long term goals and, if they seem foggy or obscure in the middle of all your busy-ness it is probably time to sit down and revisit your vision for your business and yourself.
The third practical step is assessing your business practices. Look for areas of opportunity or improvement – what would make the day easier? Are you trying to do too much with too little in the way of resources? Is that why you are feeling stretched? Are you making the most of digital and automation or have you simply set operating parameters that are too rigid and inflexible?
So that’s a simple three step process to help you reset – connect with others, remind yourself why you do what you do and double check your business practices are still appropriate for your enterprise. And once you’ve done all that make sure you relax.
Ripples of relief are running around the world this month even though the pandemic rages on. Here, the much talked of travel bubble has begun and while it may provide some ease for the harder hit sectors, the shadow of recession is cast and many predict a long, hard slog ahead.
While the pandemic is a new experience for most of us, recession is a familiar nemesis with business owners preparing to hunker down and brave the next economic storm.
Yet in the same way we have had to be flexible and inventive in dealing with the pandemic, perhaps it is time we reviewed our response to recession – change our behaviours or, at the very least, look at things differently?
Traditional approaches to business development in a recession have been geared towards survival, retrenchment, cost-cutting and job losses but is this the right way to go? Doesn’t that perpetuate the boom-bust cycle?
At our board meetings, we’ve been talking about ways to approach business in hard times and it’s been fascinating listening to business owners as they work on smart thinking to beat the slump or take advantage of an opportunity.
What we found is that technology is a silent untapped resource and we still underutilise its potential. Some of us are even afraid to explore alternatives or feel we don’t have the skills and/or money to take advantage of it. One safe solution to step out of your comfort zone is to do it with the wisdom of others around you and discover how and what other businesses are doing in their industries, what existing technology they use and consider how it could be adapted for your own industry and business.
This brings me to a key hurdle which is you taking action – yes, we have to start with ourselves – making small changes in our everyday environment and the things we do. Add influential habits into your time management, small things that drive the rhythm of your day. For example, while you’re driving, listen to e-books or podcasts instead of the radio or music. If you want to stop buying a pie for breakfast each morning on the way to work, change the route you travel and miss the pie shop. If you want to walk more and drive less, park further away from work. These small habits add up and become significant as a whole.
Back in the business, start adding small improvements to your key operational functions. Something as simple as a five to ten minute team huddle every day to identify current issues can be really helpful – preferably In person, but phone or video call is ok too. Crucially, it has to happen each day – same time, same place, same routine. This regular check-in gives everyone a chance to highlight issues as they arise rather than accumulated troubles suddenly bursting into our comfort zone.
Ask people about the changes they’re seeing, what’s on their horizon, whether they’re stuck on anything and where they think positive steps can be taken to deal with emerging difficulties. Innovation starts from within and creating an environment conducive to innovation takes work. Ideally, you want to reach a point where everyone in the business is confident that they contribute to the business every day, morale is high and, when tough times occur, the whole team deals with it together.
Collaboration and discussion helps to reshape the way we see difficulties – we can look for opportunities and – as we saw quite often during the early stages of COVID19 – this can take the business in a new, profitable and sustainable direction.
So as the clouds gather on the economic horizon don’t default to past approaches – switch on new thinking and be a guiding light towards recovery.
It’s a rocky road for employers these days – one day it’s a COVID19 alert level change and the next we’re dealing with an earthquake. Much support has been given to employers to help them through these times but have employees been properly supported by all the processes and systems we’ve seen launched since COVID19 first made its presence felt?
A couple of weeks ago the national alerts sounded following the earthquakes – particularly the big one in the Kermadecs – and many employees were sent home. The question is, were they sent home with or without pay? What were their expectations of their employer in that particular emergency? Did they expect to be paid for the day even though it was unlikely they would return to work until the emergency had passed? It’s hard for businesses to bear that cost in the current COVID climate yet, if employees don’t know what to expect from their companies when emergencies occur, how will that affect their relationship with the business? As we know, one of the many COVID fall-outs is the lack of skilled staff – so will poor communication or unclear policies lead to staff losses?
All these questions take us back to the topics of contingency planning and internal communication. In between emergencies – which seem to come thick and fast – it is worth taking some time to work out how your business is going to manage employee expectations. As businesses grow, it can be hard to maintain good internal communications but it should always be a priority. Strong businesses are strong from the inside out. Internal communication that helps employees understand emergency processes – from where to head when an alarm goes off to expectations around pay, sick leave and holidays – is essential for a business to thrive.
All businesses – large or small – should communicate constantly with their staff. That way when the unexpected does happen, what comes next is no surprise. Physically, when the tsunami warning sounds, we all want to be high and dry but nobody wants to be left high and dry financially. Forward planning, understanding your cash flow – getting inside the numbers – building reserves where you can, all help you, as a business owner, survive the storms and make sure your employees are sheltered when the going gets rough.
New Zealand’s small businesses are known for their ‘family feel’ and the majority of business owners create a work whanau where trust and respect flourish. This is often the result of good internal communication backed by great business planning on the part of the owner. If you are a young business, a growing business or even a larger business that may have lost touch with its employees and their expectations, the advice would be take a moment and sort out your policies today then let people know what to expect and when. Being prepared for the next emergency and knowing how you are going to manage the situation is all part of our new reality where the unexpected is the norm.
We’re not immune to employment issues here in Northland and one of the areas we frequently discuss at our peer board meetings is how to overcome the skills shortage in the region.
Employment issues are one of the top stressors for business owners in the small-to-medium sector, as identified in our Summer Pulse Check, and although Northland has managed to maintain a reasonable economic performance through the first stages of COVID19, our people shortage persists. One certainty we have is knowing that it helps to talk through such challenges with like-minded business owners – which is where The Alternative Board comes in.
Together, we’ve looked at solutions to the skills shortage ranging from partnerships with educational establishments, more apprenticeships and building company culture to sponsoring potential employees to help them gain the skills they need – and we are still exploring other initiatives that may help us bridge the gap.
As well as identifying the stressors, the Pulse Check discovered what would most help business owners get through this year – 43% said a chat with other business owners and specialist advice would be just the thing and is another area where working with a peer board provides a solution.
Big companies pay a board of directors to provide advice and solutions but private business owners don’t have that luxury – they have to figure things out by themselves which can be tough, stressful and quite lonely. The Alternative Board is exactly what it says it is – a small, confidential alternative to the traditional board of directors. In Northland, I bring together non-competing business owners and leaders who then work together to solve the challenges and opportunities we all face running our own business – whether that’s staffing, funding, cash-flow, sales, input costs – all the issues across all the sectors. I facilitate the groups and together we support, develop and grow our businesses, helping each other succeed.
To help people decide if this approach will help them, we run what’s called a ‘sample board’ – essentially a ‘try before you buy’ session – so if you would like to chew over some of Northland’s business challenges or drill down into the nitty-gritty of your business call me and let’s tackle the stressors together.
‘The heart of the economy’ – that’s the description frequently applied to New Zealand’s small businesses but what’s often overlooked is how those same businesses are at the heart of their communities too.
It’s been another tough week for everyone and many small businesses will again be feeling the pinch but, despite the return of familiar stressors, those businesses will quietly carry on supporting the many charities, not-for-profits, community and sports groups that play such a critical role in our society.
With that in mind, and on behalf of The Alternative Board, I’d like to give a shout-out to the thousands of business owners around the country who quietly and unassumingly help out the organisations around them. Sometimes this help comes in the form of sponsorship, other times it is support in kind, with donations of goods or services and it may even – in cash-strapped times – be offered as practical, hands-on support, fixing fences or painting club rooms.
The big companies often make a big noise about their community support and we see their names in lights attached to good causes – and it is absolutely right that they are recognised for what they do.
Small business support tends to be given quietly, slipping in under the radar but is just as critical. I recently asked members of a Northland networking group if anyone supported local causes and 90% of the room said yes – and did so with a big smile.
There is an incredible amount of support from small and medium sized businesses that is as important as that given by the big named sponsors and, at The Alternative Board, we’d like to acknowledge and congratulate all the business owners for their efforts – efforts that often span decades and countless contributions.
It makes a difference to the values of our community, the way we give back demonstrates our commitment to those around us. The support we give brings our values to life, makes a difference to society and to our health and wellbeing.
This year, I’ve sponsored Northland Rugby’s Taniwha Supporters Club and have been truly heartened by the response both from the club and from fellow business owners who have shared with me the causes they support – but always forget to mention. It seems that, as is the way with small businesses, they quietly get on with the job, so if your business supports a local cause, club or charity, let me know so I can give you a shout-out and a heart-felt thank you on behalf of everyone you help.
Heading into the last long weekend of summer we were all rattled by the COVID19 cases that popped up in Northland and North Auckland. We’ve not been oblivious to the ravages of the pandemic elsewhere in the world but we have managed to slide through summer in a fairly relaxed ‘must-remember-to-scan-in’ style.
The twin spectres of lockdowns and alert level changes loomed large as the media briefings restarted – and for many businesses, a rising sense of panic edged out the last of the summer vibes. The virus will be with us for a long time yet and it is inevitable we will have to continue adapting to rapid change – so what as business owners can we do to stay cool when the COVID temperature rises?
As with any assessment of risks and issues we have to be able to deal with anything and everything so my main tip would be to make sure you are prepared for an outbreak. Start by taking another long, hard look at your business. You will, in the first weeks after the pandemic was declared, have adapted to operating in a crisis. Maybe you invested in technology, perhaps you reorganised your operation entirely – it was hard to do but you made it.
We’ve had the luxury of some pandemic ‘down time’ but that won’t always be the case, so in preparing for change, stop and think how an outbreak will affect you and those around you.
How are your cash reserves?
Will you need to make that rapid switch to digital again or have you embedded processes that allow you to move seamlessly from one method of operation to another?
Have you got to grips with managing remote teams for when we find ourselves back in ‘working from home’ mode?
What flexibility have you built in for staff members who have children or other caring responsibilities?
How will you keep your customers and staff safe during alert level changes?
What communications processes do you have in place so your stakeholders and communities can stay connected and informed?
How will you counter misinformation?
How will you manage your business if you find yourself – or a staff member – at the centre of an outbreak?
Have you reviewed your sick leave policy to make sure staff are cared for?
You will have asked all of these questions before but during ongoing change we have to ask – and answer – the same questions time and again to make sure we are ready to respond when the occasion demands.
The next tip is to build people’s confidence in your COVID risk management – set an example and let them see you take your responsibilities seriously. That means having your business QR code throughout your premises – one on the front door, one on the front desk, by the bathrooms, in the break room – if there’s a flat surface to be had slap a code on there and get your people using it. For those without phones, set up easy sign in stations that feature a prominent date and time column. It means looking at your health and safety plan and introducing processes that will cover different scenarios and understanding your operational risks from supply to order or service completion.
And my last tip is this – there is no ‘business as usual’. Business is and will be, most unusual for a considerable time to come, so expect changes and stay cool when pandemic problems arise.