Leaders must be fearless as well as frugal to survive this crisis

Leaders who instill their teams with the confidence to experiment amid uncertainty will thrive.

By: Michelle Scarborough, Managing Partner, Strategic Investments & Women in Technology Venture Fund, BDC Capital.

There’s great wisdom in U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s words to the American people in the midst of the Great Depression: The only thing we have to fear is… fear itself.

But what he says shortly afterwards is what I find most instructive in times of crisis: This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. There are many ways in which it can be helped, but it can never be helped merely by talking about it. We must act and act quickly.

Roosevelt didn’t succeed in revitalizing the United States economy by turning to tactics that worked in the past. Instead, he recognized the need for something new — a vision of what could be — and took the calculated risks to make it happen.

It’s a powerful example for business leaders grappling with the coronavirus pandemic. Similarly, our leaders must become champions of creative risk-taking with the fearlessness to continually try new things even when the best laid plans fall apart. Here are some strategies to meet that challenge.

Exercise empathy in everything you do

It’s important for leaders today to appreciate the unique stresses on their staff and visibly demonstrate empathy in every interaction. Frequent communication is one of the most effective ways to achieve this.

Keep staff informed of your company’s successes, failures, goals and challenges so they feel included rather than secluded. Regularly check in with them individually so they see you care about their well-being as much as their productivity. This gives them the strength to carry on, the confidence to ask for help, and the motivation to innovate.

Of course, companies also need to provide the resources to support staff. Manulife is one Canadian company going above and beyond. The insurer offers each of its staff up to $10,000 per year in mental health benefits and recently added remote wellness activities, like guided meditations and yoga classes. Others like Shopify and Google gave employees $1,000 to purchase home office supplies. Even small acts of empathy can make staff feel like they don’t have to face the pandemic alone.

Encourage a culture of experimentation

Research from McKinsey shows that in order to bounce back stronger than ever, companies need to reimagine the business models that brought them success. Leaders need to instill in their staff the confidence to continually challenge assumptions and try new methods of reaching customers. A culture of experimentation greatly increases the odds of finding the product-market fit.

Brainstorm with everyone across your organization to get the creative juices flowing. Reward the employees who bring new ideas to the table and applaud them for trying even when their approach fails. What’s most important is fostering an openness to sharing diverse perspectives with one another; this has consistently proven to correlate with success!

Australian start-up Collective Campus embodies the culture of experimentation that’s key to finding a viable niche. The COVID-19 outbreak sidelined many of the innovation consultancy’s high-profile events, but the team pivoted to several new streams, including a thought leadership content licensing model that’s replaced a good chunk of missing revenue. Here in Canada, entrepreneur Sheila Wong of BBW International shifted her team of event staffers into COVID-19 safety ambassadors for office buildings.

Elevate customers’ evolving needs above all

In the midst of a global pandemic, it’s only natural for us to think about our own needs first. But leaders must make customers feel like they are what matters most in order to keep them in the fold.

Reach out to your clients regularly to keep the lines of communication open as their situation changes. Figure out what’s keeping them up at night and then pitch a solution tailored specifically to them. Showing your willingness to go above and beyond for them will have them thinking of ways to return the favour. Plus, the customized service you offer them may turn out to be a long-term revenue stream once the worst of the downturn is over!

BDC Capital portfolio start-up Tealbook perfected this personalization. The company recognized early on that its clients would be in desperate need of new suppliers as COVID-19 threw supply chains into disarray. It offered customers limited free access to its database of trusted suppliers and more affordable pricing models. This encouraged existing customers to stick with them and convinced new ones to try their service.

The current crisis is undoubtedly daunting for even seasoned leaders to confront, but like Roosevelt, they must embrace its potential for creative destruction. The New Deal ushered in an era of economic prosperity for America and, in many ways, the world. With fearless innovators at the helm, perhaps this moment in history can do the same.

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Industry news, insights, research and portfolio updates brought to you by BDC Capital’s Strategic Investments and Women in Technology Venture Fund

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Industry news, insights, research and portfolio updates brought to you by BDC Capital’s Strategic Investments and Women in Technology Venture Fund

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