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How to find solid ground for your business in an unknowable future?

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Lessons for business leaders amid COVID-19 from the farm of Chris Houston

Who knew that a simple Sunday morning breakfast could provide counsel on the two essential assets all business leaders require: the quality of resilience and the adaptive thinking tools of scenario planning. This morning, on our farm, I gathered the first fresh wild leeks (ramps) from our maple woods and the fresh eggs from the chickens and made the year’s first wild leek scrambled eggs. Delicious! The leeks teach resilience. The chickens – of oh such tiny brains! – are excellent scenario planners.

As spring arrives here on the farm, the landscape fills with the fruit of resilience. In the woods and the gardens, the wild leeks, crocuses, parsnips, daffodils and the maple trees have all stored sugars in frost resistant or inaccessible bulbs or roots. Winter here in Ontario is uncertain – its length and depth of cold are unknown and while many thrive, some plants lack sufficient or any resilience to withstand our long cold winters. Some years are much worse than others. Just as with COVID -19, the duration and implications are still virtually unknown, certainly beyond our experience.  We have no idea when the frozen financial winter of 2020 will truly end, giving way to the life of a new spring, or what businesses will survive and indeed thrive.  So much depends on resilience and the extent to which critical assets have been safely stored and then quickly and effectively redeployed.

For business, and business leaders, resilience comes in both character and in tangible resources. In our just in time world, when supply chains slam shut, inventories are soon depleted.  For many, revenues are also collapsing beyond our experience through social distancing and enacted policy.  Worse, employees, suppliers and customers – our valued colleagues, our friends, our family members – are falling sick and despondent. Throughout it all, it is the character of a healthy human company and a healthy leader that prevails: those who know their Purpose and their Identity.

Whether manufacturer, construction company, retailer, farmer, baker, service provider, teacher or tourist destination, it is the “how” that is completely in flux, but more about adaptability when we get to the chickens.  Resilience of character is what grounds a healthy human company. As Rudyard Kipling advises his son…

“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,…
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting…

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two imposters just the same…

To lose our heads in this kind of crisis is to lose sense of who we are, of our core reason for being in business in the first place.  A good reason – a purpose driven reason – will always involve serving somebody other than ourselves.  This is a crucial time for responsible leaders to remain grounded – focused on what our organizations are, why we exist and whom we serve.  To do this we need to maintain our own personal health, watching what we eat, getting regular exercise and taking time for gratitude.  For our company’s health, if we manufacture things, we may need to pivot, retool and refocus on what products the world and our communities most badly need.  If we feed people or sell other essential retail products – we may need to quickly secure very different supply chains, develop websites and delivery vehicles (figuratively and literally).  If we broker mortgages or rent buildings or homes, we may need to offer customers and tenants the opportunity to delay payments, to give our loyal customers time to set things right. If we transact property or insurance contracts, we may need to find new platforms for those transactions and new ways to bring the value we once delivered in one way, through entirely different.  However, I can hear you now, our character may frame resilience, but in business, the fuel is cash.

In any organization, but especially in a business, cash is king. As revenue falls at unimagined rates or funding rounds are delayed by crippling uncertainty, the healthy human company preserves cash, liquidity, to resurge in the spring, whenever and however that comes. Cash management is to the healthy human company, what sugar storage is to my freshly picked wild leeks above which tower the maples whose rising sap fills our syrup bottles each spring and from whose first pollens the hungry bees break their winter fast.  As we are all scrambling to protect our companies against this massive economic winter of unknown depth and duration, resilience is our watchword. The decisions to be made are brutally hard, especially the human ones where we tradeoff cash and compensation, livelihoods tomorrow for a mortgage today. Resilience is a hard discipline.

Yet resilience is not enough.  Here my chickens – of oh such tiny brains! – are a good teacher.  The chickens strut about the farmyard for one reason – at least I only have one reason for them – they lay beautiful eggs. Lots of them!  Over 200 per year, each, as long as I persuade them with lights that they live in a perpetual summer of 16 hours of daylength. My chickens are not resilient like the wild leeks, but they are stunningly adaptive and excellent scenario planners. Nothing phases them. Every day, they are ready for literally anything as they derive their daily caloric intake – their essential cash flow – from a wide array of sources. When it rains, they become master worm hunters. When the flies hatch on a sunny day, they catch them in the air. If an apple falls from a tree, they become fruit pickers. When a thistle loses its seeds to the wind, they are seed eaters. If a mouse runs past, they return to their dinosaur roots.  And then, despite all these various inputs, they still turn it all into what chickens do brilliantly, they lay delicious eggs.

As we prepare our healthy human companies for an unknowable future, we don’t need a plan for a well-predicted future of the kind we may have known. We need scenarios that accommodate long or short shutdowns, extended or abbreviated social distancing, recovered or permanently altered customer behaviour. Nor will we know which scenario we are in until we get there, yet we will get clues, like early warning signals. These early indicators suggest changing probabilities of different outcomes. When my chickens see me arrive with grain, they chase me. When I heave weeds out of the garden, they run in a different direction. When the flies are hatching, they completely ignore me.

Every healthy human company needs to develop and consider a portfolio of future scenarios – their strategic ‘what ifs’ that can answer ‘how’ on any day. The essential attribute of the healthy human company is stunning adaptability, “turn on a dime” kind of flexibility. Of this we may be certain; today’s unknown future will one day, perhaps soon, become a known present. The healthy human company will have anticipated many such futures, even if all are unknown, and rehearsed that adaptive behaviour.  This may mean that retailers become home deliverers, concert musicians become live streamers, family physicians become telemedicators, and every parent returns to their original role of home educator.

Fortunately, our best companies are human, and we humans are remarkably adaptive. I’m pretty confident we can be smarter than my chickens, more resilient than my wild leeks though I am not so sure that you or I will outlast the maples!

So, what to do?  Three things…

  1. Remind yourself and your team who you are as a company! Your purpose.  Whom you exist to serve. While your accountant will handle the cash forecasts, explore newly announced government support programs, and renegotiate debt obligations, remember to live your values.  Work at building true human resilience.  Do all you can to ensure the protection (the physical, mental and financial health) of yourself, your family, your employees and your customers.  You are building loyalty for the future.  If you do need to lay employees off, do it with kindness and grace.  Make sure they know they are valued, even stay connected, keep community even if you can’t sustain employment.  Be prepared to advise them on government support and what you may be able to offer.
  2. Set your plan to weather this unprecedented uncertainty with multiple scenarios. Bring together and unleash the immense creativity of your team (your precious human capital) while you work to preserve your economic capital, that provides capacity to pivot.
  3. With mitigation in hand, get ready for a new world brimming with unimagined possibility. Few things will likely be the same. Hope might not be a method, but it is a powerful fuel for creativity. Get ready for an unknowable future…for spring always follows winter. That, you can count on!

Here at The Telosity Company, our motto is to “Do Good Work”. We are passionate about helping leaders build healthy human companies. For us, Purpose comes before Profit. We need a lot of the first. There will be enough of the second. If we can help, please ask.  Find us at www.telositycompany.com.

Chris Houston writes from his farm in Moffat, Ontario, where the ordered natural world and the chaotic human world get close enough so the former can teach the latter.


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