Business leaders from organizations of all sizes would do well to renew their commitment to keenly listening to both their employees and their customers as they work through disruptions tied to COVID-19. 

The critical nature of communicating well during the crisis was among the themes that emerged from an hourlong virtual panel discussion last week hosted by the Business Record. 

As the second panel discussion in the Coping w/COVID Webcast series, the Business Record assembled a panel of business planning professionals with experience in a broad array of industries to weigh in on the challenges, strategies and best practices they’re seeing with their clients. The panelists included: 

Jeff Goetz, shareholder, Bradshaw, Fowler, Proctor & Fairgrave P.C.
Matthew Mitchell, partner, Bâton Global, associate professor of international business and strategy, Drake University 
Christina Moffatt, owner, Crème Cupcake + Dessert and director of Small Business Resources, Greater Des Moines Partnership
Jon Sarvis, chief financial officer, Bank Iowa 
Eileen Wixted, principal, Wixted & Co.  

Particularly as businesses are under the threat of having to reduce or shut down operations, or when economic realities could make layoffs or other budgets necessary, leaders need to be transparent as they respond to situations that don’t have a playbook.  

As communications consultant Eileen Wixted stated it: “You want to bring your employees and others under the tent and you want to give them an idea of where you are usually at, where you need to be, and the criteria by which you’re going to be making decisions,” she said.  

For leaders of both large organizations and small, finding benchmarks to gauge your progress a  path forward can be difficult in such uncertain times. 

To start off the discussion, we asked each panelist: What are some of the most common challenges that leaders are dealing with during this crisis? 

The risk of losing it all 
Moffatt: From a small-business perspective, a lot of small businesses are facing issues of reduced staff, [so owners] are back on full time kind of catching all those extra jobs, but one thing I want to point out that the public is not really aware of is that besides being leaders and facing the challenges of their businesses, a lot of our small businesses have personally leveraged their homes. All their assets are tied to their businesses so as they look at challenges with their business, in the back of their mind is also that challenge of losing all their personal assets and their homes that are tied to those loans. So as they’re making plans strategically for their small businesses, they’re also having to keep that in the back of their mind of how to maintain their home and their families as well. 

Finding trusted advice 
Mitchell: We have had stories of young women and team members that are pregnant, and they don’t know what’s coming next for them, or they’re in retail or they’re providing for their families. So that’s the human side of this and I would say as leaders, we need to take that first step to listen first to relate to folks. Albeit virtually, relate to them and identify and bring out that humanity. And then the second  challenge I find leaders facing is just scrambling for correct information. Who do they trust in this moment, and then how do they take that information and make subsequent plans, because they’ve got to secure their physical assets; they’ve got to secure their personal assets, and all of that happens instantaneously and continuously. So this is a fast-paced and continuously challenging time. 

Always communicate on mission and purpose 
Wixted: The first thing that we always tell our clients from a communication standpoint is that a good leader frequently needs to be a good communicator, and now more than ever, when people aren’t just down the hallway and you have to be able to reach out; that communication skill is really put to the test. We talk about leading with the heart — first build empathy and common ground. “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” is a well-worn quote, but it’s oh-so true. Second, from a content standpoint, think about what is your mission and purpose, and always communicate on mission and purpose. And lastly, when everybody’s looking for specificity and everybody has more questions than they do have answers, be confident and comfortable saying, “I don’t have a lot of answers, but here’s the process we’re going to take to figure out those answers together.” And so it’s really that’s sort of leading from within and moving it forward as one. 

Adapting to varied communication needs
Sarvis: Here at the bank, we’re doing many of the same things we always have, but to Eileen’s point, we’re doing them very differently. … We’re dealing with educating some of our customers on how to interact with us in this kind of new normal. And as well we’re finding different ways to meet their needs where they’re at at this time, and for our customer base which is very diverse. A lot of times that means very different ways of communicating with very different needs for those different groups. 

‘Whole new world of hurt’ for distressed businesses
Goetz: There are companies, small businesses especially, who were relatively healthy prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. And they’re facing for the first time financial and business operational challenges. For those folks, we’re looking at what’s available under the government programs. But I’ve been very frank with clients that although I’ve been doing bankruptcy and reorganization for quite a few years, we don’t really have a playbook for this. And therefore, a lot of the initial advice we’re giving, I would put more in the category of general common-sense business advice. The other group are those businesses, especially small businesses, that might have been under some level of financial distress, prior to the pandemic. And now they’ve got a whole new world of hurt, and the approach for those folks is very different.

REWATCH: Agile business planning in uncertain times

To view a playback of the April 15 panel discussion video, click here.

Look for more insights from the panelists in the May 1 edition of the Business Record.