Mr Potato Head or bleach? Furlough or innovate?

A Guest Blog from Graham Hutchings, Associate, Friend & Chief Operating Officer at Profitability Business Simulations

I have read a lot recently about authentic, transparent and vulnerable leadership. So here’s an honest, personal account of what the last few weeks have been like juggling work and home life, and some of the things we are doing to manage our business through uncertainty. If you think there might be something of interest for you here, then it’s probably a 7-minute read, assuming you resist the inevitable urge to fall asleep midway through.

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I am 32 and married, with a 1-year old daughter. We live in Henley in Oxfordshire and my wife, Emma, works for the NHS. On March 9th this year, I took over the management of ProfitAbility, which for 30 years has delivered bespoke, face-to-face learning programs for organisations all over the world. On March 16th this year, the delivery of face-to-face learning programs became impossible, for who knows how long.

Home-life

The focus during the weekdays has been on balancing our respective jobs with looking after our daughter Olivia. Even though Emma is a “key worker” (but able to manage her caseload from home), Olivia’s childminder has closed. We regularly have incidents where the planned handover times fail, and Emma is on an over-running, difficult call to distressed parents of a disabled child struggling in the lockdown at the same time as I am starting a scheduled conference call. A frantic waving of arms and angry stares ensues as we silently battle for the right to conduct our respective conversations without having to simultaneously help Olivia dis-figure poor Mr Potato Head for the 1000th time that hour. I am sure these scenes, and much worse, are repeated in many households at the moment. It means a lot of very early starts and late nights trying to keep up with work and endlessly tidying up from the mayhem of each day, but that is a tiny price to pay for remaining healthy and employed.

Strangely, I have found this blurring of home and work life stress-reducing rather then stress-enhancing, as it’s hard to keep stewing over a difficult call with the accountant when you’re confronted by a naked, giggling toddler prancing around trying to drink a bottle of bleach, a la Trump. As an escapist alternative to depressing news, we have discovered WildEarth on YouTube, which live-streams game drives twice a day from the South African bush. We have also become far more grateful for our little garden and beautiful surrounding countryside – especially in light of stories from friends or on the news of those confined to flats or city centres. I defy anyone to find a more perfect setting than the sights, sounds and smells of a secluded English footpath on a warm Spring day. The weather has been amazing and it’s almost as if nature is rewarding us for extracting ourselves from our planet-and-mind wrecking 24/7 everything and nudging us back towards a life which could be altogether more fulfilling. If this had happened in November’s autumnal misery, and had Boris imposed more severe, Spain-like measures, I suspect the numbers of people admitting to have “enjoyed” lockdown would have halved.

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Work-life

From a work perspective, it has also been a question of balance. At the core of this has been the fundamental dilemma of “shutting up shop and waiting for this to blow over” (furloughing everyone) or “doubling down on innovating and trying to emerge stronger” (for us, this means transforming face-to-face learning content for unique, highly experiential remote learning experiences). Whilst we have furloughed a handful of employees, we have chosen the second path for now. Given that we have clients in a range of sectors, some booming (pharmaceuticals, FMCG) and others dormant (hospitality), our case was not clear cut. Both paths have obvious risks and though leadership needs to be decisive right now, it also needs to be calm, pragmatic and not too proud to change – this situation is going to last a long time and evolve continuously! For us, the ceasing of all value creation for a period of several months would make “starting up again” very difficult as, aside from the impact on our culture and employee welfare, pipelines and workflows would have run dry and clients may have gone to competitors. Choosing the innovation route depends heavily on having the internal resources (leadership, connections, skills, time, cash) to pivot the business, and the external market displaying sufficient demand for the resultant offerings – neither of which one can be certain of in such a fast moving, unfamiliar context.

Whilst the early indications from our chosen path are promising (our team, adopting a sort of siege-mentality, has shown an incredible attitude and work-rate for innovation, and clients have requested a few virtual courses already), it is far too soon to know if it has worked or not, and major challenges and tough decisions lie ahead as our market, and the business world as a whole, works out what the hell to do. Being a small business dealing exclusively with large corporates, we remain at the mercy of our clients, and we have certainly seen the true colours of some in good ways (paying extra quickly) and bad ways (reneging on contractual payments: ***resists temptation to name and shame***).

Changes implemented

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I am racked constantly by self-doubt and concern that we’re making the right calls to protect the working lives of our employees and the prosperity of the business. However, here are some of the things that seem to have worked well for us so far, and the matrix shows the internal cultural shift underpinning this.

  • Relentless focus on “momentum over perfection”: The quicker we can get through work, the quicker our clients (and us) can see the benefit and give us feedback, the more control we have over our future
  • Move from quarterly objectives down to weekly OKRs for the company, teams and individuals: fully transparent across the business,this is to mirror the need for speed, focus and fast, measurable feedback loops to confirm what works and what doesn’t. Any time/cost resource not hitting targets can be quickly re-focused to match the ever-unravelling context
  • Doing the basic, obvious things well: clear communication timetable for the whole business and each department, with strict “meeting best practices”, on Microsoft Teams (though all internal calls are banned on Wednesdays and it’s the best day of the week); daily monitoring of cashflow/scenario plans and close liaison with the bank and accountants (there are ALWAYS ways to reduce more cost which is not generating return); over-emphasis on transparent decision making/expectation management with the Board AND employees; narrowing of focus of activities, reviewed weekly, so ALL resource is applied to just 5 or 6 things likely to generate return now.
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Continuous learning

With the internet and email inboxes seemingly more awash than ever with garbage content, it can be hard to know where to go for practical, relevant insight. Here’s what I have found useful:

  • Networking: I have found weekly sessions with my local Vistage group very insightful as a way of learning and sharing practical initiatives in managing businesses through uncertainty
  • Being mentored: Speaking regularly 1-2-1 with people you trust in other businesses/sectors is invaluable e.g. Alex Partridge at Wagestream helped me learn how to implement the weekly OKRs framework
  • Encouraging sharing: I am not a regular consumer of podcasts, TedTalks or blogs, but others in our company are, and encouraging them to share on a daily basis nuggets of value from what they have heard, watched or read has meant there is a constant stream of succinct, relevant ideas flowing into the business. For example, this interview contains an amazing story of innovation happening right now, with learnings applicable to many contexts
  • Realising quickly that decisions like furloughing, pay cuts or other cost cutting are not admissions of failure but simply the right thing to do to protect our collective future. The integrity and loyalty of our team in this respect, especially those who have been furloughed, are largely to thank for this
  • Not working normal business hours, due to having to look after Olivia. The breaks have provided invaluable reflection time and forced me to delegate things to team members far more skilled than me, and then get out of their way. I may be wrong, but I feel this has massively increased the effectiveness of my input and my ability to keep the necessary perspective. 

What next?

Who knows… some difficult decisions, more tight control of cash and perhaps evidence that we have made the wrong call on some things, but I am convinced that right now many companies, including us, are producing some seriously innovative and creative output by collaborating internally and externally in ways that would never have happened before… **”STEP AWAY FROM THE BLEACH”***