Today, we find ourselves in a period of societal crisis. Albeit this is a unique crisis, quite different from those many of us have experienced in the past.
In the period of a few short months, a virus pandemic went from being the stuff of science fiction to a reality. We now all have a personal connection to someone who has dealt with this virus, and many of us know a person who has been lost to its reach. Concurrently, we were again witness to a horrifying act of needless brutality resulting in the unnecessary death of a person of color. In response, our communities have taken to protest and are demanding necessary changes in the hope that our society will finally deal with the scourge of systemic racism that has permeated the lives of so many for so long.
Amid all this, our nation now feels more divided today than I can ever remember. Factions are choosing sides, often with anger and vitriol. Lines are being drawn in the sand and compromise seems like a long-lost term with little to no meaning.
Take whatever perspective you wish, but no one can deny that we are in a period of societal upheaval on multiple levels. The events of the past few months have changed the way we live, how we work, and how we engage and interact with others. Previously accepted norms are being challenged and eliminated. We are engaging in difficult conversations on a myriad of topics. And actions are being taken on multiple levels that will impact each of us today, and long into the future.
Economic and Business Impacts
From an economic and business perspective, the impacts have been both swift and prolonged. We witnessed immediate and massive job losses across many sectors, and we continue to experience more layoffs and furloughs. Businesses have been forced to close, some for a short period and others for good. Long-standing companies have declared bankruptcy, and banking institutions are bracing for significant amounts of loan failures. The federal government has taken on its greatest level of national debt in history to ease the fall, yet it still seems to be nowhere near enough. Our plunge into another recession has most likely begun.
Those of us fortunate enough to still be actively engaged in our work have also experienced numerous changes. Once-full office buildings now sit virtually empty as workers have converted basements, kitchen tables and spare rooms into home offices. We are limited in our ability to engage with others for the purposes of sales, meetings or business gatherings. Construction sites and manufacturing plants have added a new layer of safety, with the sole purpose being to protect workers from each other. And business executives, managers and workers have a growing concern about the future, with worries over if – and when – these continual changes will end, as well as the overall impact upon our businesses and companies in the meantime.
As a business leader, the events of recent months have given me reason to consider my responsibilities and the actions I should be taking. These are considerations neither I nor any business leader should take lightly. Many will be affected by how we respond. Those who work for our companies have invested their careers in growing these companies into successful and viable entities. Our clients have come to depend upon our services to assist in the continued growth and expansion of their businesses. The suppliers and vendors who have supported us for many years want to see us continue to succeed in order to provide a customer base for themselves. The charitable and educational communities we support look to us for resources. Certainly, the continued livelihood of many individuals and organizations depend heavily upon the response of the business community. Every business leader of a successful company has a level of responsibility to those within their communities.
The solutions to many of the societal and community issues we are now facing will be difficult, varied and will most likely occur over a long period of time. Most of us will not have a direct impact upon developing these solutions. However, the business community, and more specifically those holding leadership roles within a business, must be prepared to take necessary steps to provide leadership, to assist and support others, and to develop solutions necessary to successfully navigate through these uncertain and unprecedented times. To begin this process, there are realizations every business leader should embrace, and actions they should take, to best steer their companies while supporting those who rely upon their leadership.
Developing Solutions Through Action
One of the first actions business leaders must take is to ensure and maintain a high level of open communication. This requires us to engage with, listen to, learn from, and respect the ideas and opinions of others. While COVID-19 is doing its best to shelter each of us into seclusion, this is not the time to withdraw. Now more than ever, it is important to make every effort to communicate with those within our organizations and within our communities. This is the time to seek advice, hear conflicting opinions and understand other viewpoints without judgment and condemnation. It is also the time to share with others what you have learned, your ideas and the actions you are taking during this crisis. We must remember that excellent ideas and perspectives do not come only from those more senior than ourselves. While I certainly have a long list of mentors and advisors older and more experienced than I am, I equally seek out and rely on the perspectives of those early in their careers. I gain valuable insight by listening to recent college graduates, young professionals and emerging managers working to advance their careers. My career journey has proven over and again that the knowledge and perspective I gain by listening to others – from all walks of life and generations – allow me to make better decisions in the actions I take; particularly in times of challenge and difficulty.
Next, we must in all things seek to understand the truth, and then be brutally honest with ourselves as to its impact. Uncovering the truth in any situation can be a difficult task. Accepting the truth can be a painful pill to swallow. Then to take that knowledge and make an honest assessment of its impact is often uncomfortable and unsettling. But success is not found through ignorance. No solid plan or solution can be developed based on the acceptance of unsupported data, or information defined by hunches, or by relying upon long-held personal beliefs that have never been challenged. Throughout my career, I have dealt with numerous challenging and difficult situations. Each time, it was only by seeking and understanding the unvarnished truth, then being brutally honest with myself on how it will impact my business, that was I able to begin the process of developing a successful solution.
Finally, we must realize and accept that change is not only inevitable, but necessary. Change is difficult, frustrating, and elicits fear. But to embrace an attitude of resistance to change serves no value. As business leaders, we must be willing to not only challenge ourselves, but also to challenge our previously held ideas, opinions, beliefs and norms. Then we must be ready to implement the changes required. This is not to imply that we erode values and principles such as integrity, compassion, or faith. More specifically, it is those same values and principles that necessitate we question and revisit the opinions and actions which we may have previously considered acceptable. The way many of us think, how we act and what we believe today is vastly different than what it may have been 20 or 30 years ago. This validates the reason to believe our lives and our work will be just as significantly different in the future. The greatest perils come to those who refuse to accept change in their work, their businesses and their lives. The greatest success comes to those who acknowledge and embrace the changes necessary to move forward.
Meeting the Challenge
We are not past this crisis, not even close. These are not normal times. More challenges will occur. How we work and live will continue to change. There will continue to be conflicting opinions and diverse perspectives. Each of us, and all those around us, will continue to be impacted in our own unique way.
Navigating business through these challenging times will be difficult. It will require the business community, specifically its leaders, to take focused action. We must engage in open and honest communication with others, respecting their opinions, advice and ideas. We must seek the truth and then honestly acknowledge and accept the realities of the challenges we face. Then, we must open ourselves to implementing meaningful change in how we work, operate our businesses, and interact with others. By taking these steps, we can then develop successful and lasting solutions, in the hope the result will be a positive impact within our work, our communities and our lives.
Brian T. King is the founder and owner of multiple firms encompassing design, construction, real estate, and manufacturing, and currently president of the integrated Design-Build firm A M King. Brian shares his passion for mentoring young professionals, rising managers and entrepreneurs at speaking engagements around the country, on podcasts and via his blog.