SME Leadership Lessons from Lockdown (Part 2)

Mike McKenzie | 19/4/20 Blog

As the lockdown continues, I’ve compiled some more observations & tips from my discussions with SME business leaders. It includes some common traps that I’m starting to see some business owners fall into!


From “Triage” to a ‘Stabilise’.

Most owners feel that they have moved from the ‘Triage’ to ‘Stabilise’ stage. Many are operating with a much-reduced headcount and a ‘refrain’ of furloughed employees. They are trying to establish a temporary new normal for their business for the next 4-6 weeks. (And they are also getting mightily sick of that ‘new normal’ expression!)


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Don’t get stuck in the engine room!

The crisis has seen many business owners roll their sleeves up and work long hours ‘on the front line’. This was needed and is to their credit BUT they now need to step back and introduce some structure and balance into the proceedings. Ironically, many have made great strides over the last few years and learnt how to work ‘on’ (not ‘in’) the business.

This crisis means they are at risk of slipping back into bad habits!

If this sounds familiar then you must consciously work at this every day to ensure that you are giving others the context, space and the confidence to make their own decisions.


Now is the right time for some Scenario Planning.

As we move into the Stabilise phase, it creates the opportunity to anticipate and plan for both negative and positive future scenarios. Many business owners are starting to create these action plans as they must prepare for a further downturn and, at the same time, be ready for the upturn that will come when everyone (including their competitors!) tries to bounce back.




If you need to work on this then remember you’re not completing an MBA dissertation, so time-box this piece of work and be pragmatic,

  • Come up with a top 3 or 5 plausible scenarios - these might include lock-down timeframes, government exit strategies and specific impacts on key customers, projects or the supply chain.
  • Then work with your senior team to brainstorm and agree on an appropriate response to each scenario and be 100% clear on the key triggers that would necessitate that response. (e.g. if Project XYZ is cancelled or pushed back beyond end May then we should furlough these additional staff within 48 hours.)

Anticipating and planning with your senior team becomes even more important when you consider that these inflexion points might easily occur when you ( or other key decision-makers) are incapacitated due to the virus.


New Markets/New Products.

Many business owners are faced with sales that are dropping off the proverbial cliff-edge. Short-term responses are understandable (and have been essential for many!) but the stampede to offer hand sanitiser and PPE to the masses will soon be over. A more sustainable response is required.

We’re all reading that the world after COVID-19 will be very different and I see leadership teams getting energised by the opportunities that might come from this market disruption. There is nothing wrong with this - amongst all the doom and gloom they’re surely entitled to look at some potential positives - BUT they must be careful not to overstretch into new areas and make promises that they simply can’t keep.

If you are starting to contemplate new products and/or new markets in your organisation, then it’s important to come at this from a position of strength. That strength lies in your existing DNA (Core Competence), Core Values and Market Positioning.

That well-known matrix developed by H. Igor Ansoff in 1957 still holds true - virus or no virus. ‘New Products’ into ‘New Markets’ is a very high-risk strategy!




So, whilst you might want to energise your team by brainstorming product and market ideas, make sure there is a sensible ‘venturing process’ in place. You can’t follow up every idea, so you should establish clear prioritisation criteria at the outset. Then, for the chosen few, you should adopt an experimental ‘small steps, quickly’ approach to avoid expensive, exhausting and demotivating failure.

I’ll set aside some time to provide more guidance on this next week.


Prioritise Communication to ALL employees.

Too many owners are at risk of neglecting their furloughed employees. It’s not a conscious decision, but it’s a direct result of their focus on the immediate challenges and the staff in front of them. 

If this is not addressed, quickly, it could cause irreparable damage to their culture and employment brand.

Think about it; if the virus is forcing you as a business owner to fundamentally re-evaluate your business model and your priorities, then imagine what re-evaluating must be happening in the minds of your furloughed staff. Any previous work on culture and values is now being put to the test.

To come full circle in this article, if you are still stuck in the engine room then it’s time to come out and communicate, communicate and then communicate some more to ALL employees. This is when the ‘words on the wall’ have to mean something and now is the time to truly earn the respect and loyalty of your staff. Rest assured you’ll reap the rewards when it comes time to bounce back.



Finally, many companies are still using the framework that I created a few weeks ago. If you want to download it then I've added it again. Just click on the image below and the PowerPoint will download immediately.


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