Leading sales through the COVID-19 crisis. Lessons from disruption

Working with CEOs and leaders through the MacKay forum means asking, learning and advising those c-suite individuals on what this means. In a recent presentation I connected with some of Canada’s business leaders. We wanted to talk about lessons learned from disruption.

The ‘new normal’ has been conceptualized over and over again — we don’t need to imagine it, we need to create it. It’s not enough to just work in the business anymore, you have to work on the business. Leading sales through the COVID-19 crisis? Here are some ideas for you.

How bad is it? And what can a business do?

First, let’s not understate the current state of the world. It’s not a small bump. It’s a gaping hole in the ground that appeared overnight. So, let’s treat it like the disaster it is. Where there’s disasters, there’s disaster management, and recovery. If you want to create the new normal, you have to acknowledge why it exists.

Disaster responders and relief personnel are equipped to understand, diagnose, and break down everything from hurricanes to pandemics, and it’s them that we turn to now. There are four emotional phases in disaster recovery: Heroic, Honeymoon, Disillusionment, Reconstruction.

What phase you are depends on external and internal circumstances. My years of work with performance leadership and businesses making changes mean I know that progression relies on leaders and teams that are open and motivated to adopting new ways of working.

Let’s redefine those phrases for a business though. Set the stage. In a pre-pandemic world, the focus was to plan, implement and manage growth. In today’s broken economy, revenue is down. Spending is frozen across the board. Everyone is online.

The key question is, do you keep investing, or go into survival mode? Leading sales through the COVID-19 crisis… how do you lead your sales team?

Phase 1: How to boost internal communications when everyone’s working remotely

Communication styles vary from person to person. Some people are comfortable expressing themselves, others struggle. During the presentation, we recognized a key goal for all leaders during this time: define the guidelines for courageous conversations.

Working from home is a dream for some people. For those who live alone, or are struggling with the work/life boundaries, these crucial conversations need to happen. Reach out to a few staff members everyday, especially those spending long periods alone.

Is your work suffering? What do your sales look like during the pandemic? There’s a fine line between employees accountable, and remotely micromanaging them. Be clear on accountability. Who “owns” a piece of work? What are the deadlines and priorities? Are expectations clear?

One business leader noted the loss of spontaneity felt during this time, and was committed to reaching out to colleagues they’d never spoken to before, or spontaneously calling different team members just to genuinely see how they were feeling lately.

Video chats aren’t just for catch-ups though — host a yoga class or a games night, call colleagues for lunch or a dinner party. Miss your Friday huddles? Reserve the last hour of each week for a team pow-wow.

Balance is crucial though, and the best way to understand what works is by asking. Send a survey out. Hold weekly town hall meetings. Keep the communication lines open, and clarify that it is a two way conversation.

Phase 2: The right way to manage your team remotely

One of the leaders I spoke to felt that though they could connect with the team, they no longer felt the ‘pulse’ of the organization. Despite having 1-to-1’s and virtual socializing, something was missing to connect the dots. Leadership during a pandemic is no easy feat.

Many leaders who take pride in integrating team members and building internal connections may relate. Is this you? Recognize if this is a part of your leadership style, that may have been diminished by the pandemic.

Any business leader at this time will have realised the importance of flexibility. We’ve more than blurred the lines between work and home — we’ve buried them. Your team members aren’t just colleagues anymore. They’re parents, teachers, cleaners, organizers, and budding self-care experts.

Allow part-time and flexible hours within the organization, but maintain online availability for all staff. Prioritize outcomes over activity.

When you do need your team on hand, rethink the conventional meeting structure. What does a team that can work in a disruptive environment, look like? How do you connect people that weren’t connected before?

Be proactive — do simple what-if scenarios. COVID disrupted us, and there’s nothing to stop that from happening again. What’s the best and worst case scenario? A ‘war room’ style meeting allows you to address a situation while conserving everyone’s energy and attention span.

Phase 3: Financially crunched? Use leverage, get flexible and if you’re truly stuck — renegotiate

Revenue is down. This means budgets are down, which means financial creativity is a must. Without losing entire departments, where can you make cuts?

Instead of laying off team members, embrace the four day week. Cut pay by 30% to 50% across the board. Small cuts that are company wide, may be as effective as large cuts that are localized.

If you work with contractors, consults or vendors, renegotiate your terms for a certain time period. Stick to billable hours, or pause a certain amount of projects. It may be a big ask, but swallow your ego. Find out if you can defer supplier payments, or extend terms.

Phase 1 and 2 of disaster recovery, Heroic and Honeymoon, involve helping people when they need it most. Employing empathy. In a time of collective chaos, don’t hesitate to give and take help.

Phase 4: Learnings and the ‘new normal’

Bring it all together and what do you get? Organized chaos. Which is better than regular chaos. Three months in and it’s now time to start picking and choosing what works best for your team.

Are you managing a work/life balance? Putting your laptop out of sight when the clock hits 5pm? How does pandemic-parenting work? Where are the opportunities for kids to have emotional resilience learnings?

The new normal is upon us. As the situation changes, so will the baseline. Adaptability may be the key to your business surviving the year. Business leadership isn’t what it used to be.

What are you learning and implementing to create your new normal?

Are you leading sales through the COVID-19 crisis? I offer performance leadership consulting for CEOs who are looking to drive sustainable growth. Interested? Contact me today and let’s get started