Pragmatic Steps to Get You Through This COVID-19 ‘Fog of War’
Verit Advisors’ view is that having weathered the early chaotic weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, leaders of family-owned and private companies can focus on practical steps and actions that others have taken in other crisis situations.
The relentless pace and volume of new coronavirus-related business information is mind-numbing. I liken it to the fog of war – that military term for the uncertainty commanders experience about their next steps amidst the confusion of the battlefield.
As many have noted, we are now engaged in a contest with a fierce, invisible enemy. While COVID-19 is a health crisis, it has precipitated an economic crisis, the speed and depth of which is unique in the last century. During the first week of national awareness of the pandemic, you likely concentrated on appropriately safeguarding your employees (and that continues). In week two and three, you sought to get a handle on what your business and your value chain looked like.
Now, as the newness of working remotely dissipates and you grapple with the practicalities of keeping your business running, you probably can finally focus on practical actions to take regarding your balance sheet, cash flow, workforce and operational needs. Your goal, of course, is to keep your business afloat for a prolonged period of time.
While these times are exceptional, with our decades of experience advising and guiding family-owned and private companies through challenging periods, we respectfully offer this practical, real-world counsel to help leaders of private- and family businesses.
1. Call your bankers, as they may be too busy digesting CARES Act and other government directives to call you. Ask what they’re seeing and hearing with their clients, and let them know your business and liquidity situation and your plan for managing through the current situation.
Keep it simple (they know you well already). Relay just a handful of key financial vitals, like your credit and cash flow situation. Ask about fresh government assistance programs available for, say, payroll and loan assistance. And if you think it may become necessary, broach the subject of waivers and amendments to loan covenants, and extended payment terms.
2. Be proactive. Don’t delay. A time lag in learning of and acting on your options can hurt your chances of getting timely help. If you seek equipment or real estate financing, be aware that lenders may be unable to send out their field examiners to evaluate the quality of your collateral, which can delay closings. Ask about workarounds or virtual meetings.
3. Assess your finance team. While most CFOs have sound financial control and accounting skills, unusual times like these put a premium on financial and scenario planning, knowledge of financial alternatives and negotiating skill with lenders. Especially important now is preparing pro forma cash flow projections for various, now-realistic COVID-19-driven scenarios.
Look to third-party, independent advisors to provide the financial talents and resources your team may lack. The fact that the analysis has been prepared by an objective third-party may help discussions with your bankers.
4. Step up interactions with your Board. You can probably reach them more readily at home these days (even on weekends). Brainstorm with them; use them as a sounding board. On a recent conference call, I gained eight great suggestions from mine, including a recommendation that directors join my Zoom video meetings to assist my team in the trenches and even join our Zoom happy hours.
5. Divide and conquer on COVID-19-related issues. Because the scope of new information on which one must become an expert is overwhelming, give each of your leaders a responsibility. On my team, for instance, one is closely scrutinizing the credit markets. Another is grasping the new government programs that could apply to clients and prospects, and another concentrates on the economy and its machinations. Their expertise is sparking valuable conversations and fresh perspectives for our entire organization-in an efficient manner.
6. Value your chief people officer. I’ve felt for a while that the CHRO holds the most underrated strategic leadership position – and I do even more now as employees worry about their jobs, benefits, their safety and security and their and their families’ emotional and mental health. Heed your CHRO’s ability and counsel for managing employees’ health and welfare and for identifying coaching and rewarding leadership and future star talent. The talent war we faced before COVID-19 is likely to intensify when it dissipates as key talent opts to go to rival employers who took care of their employees during the pandemic.
7. Communicate, communicate, communicate. It’s a familiar saw, but even more critical now because all your stakeholders – employees, customers or clients, suppliers, and local communities you serve or reside in — are looking to you for guidance, direction and action. Look to them as well. Bring back employee suggestion boxes since front-line ideas for saving money or raising revenues are essential today. Also, step up contact with your customers and suppliers, even remotely. Look to social media to keep touch with your communities.
It is during confusing times that leadership comes from applying practical solutions and initiatives. Plus, if the consensus from a growing number of economists and academicians analyzing the coronavirus proves accurate, it will peak within six weeks. We may then have the ability in June to determine what the second half of 2020 might look like business-wise.
Until then, let’s consider what President John F. Kennedy often observed about the word crisis: “When written in Chinese, one brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger–but recognize the opportunity.”