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Leadership Q&A: How to lead your business in times of change

May 7th, 2020

COVID-19 has caused many field service business owners to make adjustments to the way they manage their business and lead their staff. We interviewed Curtis Thomson, one of simPRO’s Executive Directors, to get his advice on how businesses can navigate these difficult times.

1. If you could give one piece of advice to business owners during this time, what would that be?

Expect, embrace and ride the wave of change.

This may seem like obvious or even cliché advice, but it is something that is important to keep in mind during any season of change. When companies are hungry for new approaches to common problems or new technology to improve situations, they tend to have better results. People who plan for, manage and embrace change have a much better outcome on the other side than those who resist or don’t properly manage teams during change.

As we face the coronavirus outbreak, this advice is especially relevant. Change has been forced onto all businesses no matter your industry, and we aren’t sure when things will calm down. I’ve seen some of our customers who are pivoting their service offerings and already experiencing growth. For example, some electronic security companies are marketing their infrared cameras as temperature sensors to see who might have a fever or to secure the now empty buildings from intruders. I’ve also heard of electricians marketing their ability to set up home offices with power upgrades and additional data points.

On the other side of the coin, we are seeing plenty of contractors who haven’t changed their operations to suit the current environment and they are hurting badly due to serious workforce reductions.

Embracing the current state of change in this instance is critical to business success.

2. Many business owners are facing the fact that they may need to make difficult decisions in the near future, if they haven’t already. What is your method for making tough decisions?

The thing about decisions is that one way or the other, they need to be made. Doing nothing is also a decision and quite often leads you down a less than desirable road.

At simPRO, we are lucky to have spent a lot of time working on our company culture and values. Companies that don't do this tend to have a culture by default as opposed to by design, and that can easily lead to company cultures that are void of the personalities and views of staff and customers. When developing simPRO’s culture, we asked all of our teams globally to think through the core values of the company. Our executive team then took those values, added our own flavour and instilled them in our culture.

The reason I’ve explained all of that is because I believe your business’ culture can help with making a tough decision. My personal “go-to” for decision making is to adhere to our company values. The last couple of months have certainly seen some crossroads and moments for hard decisions. However, when I think about our values this provides clarity to the direction that we need to take and how to move forward.

3. How have you kept calm and mentally healthy during COVID-19?

I definitely experienced some stress and anxiety in the beginning, but I came back to my first piece of advice: expect, embrace and ride through the change. At simPRO, we transitioned all of our staff to a work-from-home model early on which gave us time to prepare and plan so that operations could be as smooth as possible under the circumstances.

As we started to realise how severe the effects of the outbreak would be and how uncertain things might become, we had to revise our forecasts, budgets and game plan for 2020. Our original plans for the business and my personal plans went out the window.

For many business owners, their personal success directly depends on the success of the business, so if the business is in distress it can wreak havoc on mental health. By modelling different scenarios and building new plans based on those different scenarios, we were able to reinforce a level of control which has personally helped me keep calm during these last few months.

Other things that have helped with my mental health include making sure I get out of the house and exercising or doing something fun each day. Currently, I’ve been having a blast mountain biking, mucking about with my kids (even more than usual!) and going for walks with my family.

4. How have you dealt with concerned staff?

In our business, we have had staff who have been concerned for the business, for their jobs and for their future. We are lucky to be in a very strong position coming into this outbreak with a large customer base spread across multiple geographic regions in different industries, and a great team. This has meant that we have been able to reassure staff when they have come to us with their concerns, although the news hasn't always been good.

For staff that have been concerned about their jobs and financial security, we have been honest about our view of the future and our current expectation about how things will play out for the business. Where possible, we have asked some staff to become involved in decision making so they can feel more in control.

Mentoring and guiding staff on ways to improve their own performance has also given concerned staff something to work on instead of worrying about things that can't be controlled.

We have also conducted several open chats where staff can ask our leadership any questions or voice concerns.

Basically it all boils down to communication, accountability and honesty. Even if you don’t always have good news to share, it’s better to keep people informed than have them be anxious due to a lack of information.

5. Have you noticed anything positive happening in the field service industry during this time that gives you hope for the future, post COVID-19?

There have been plenty of great things happening in trade contracting companies including ideas and opportunities for growth off the back of this.

In New Zealand, where the lock downs have been extremely strict, there have still been contractors carrying out essential services and so they have been able to maintain and even grow their business in this situation. Fire and life safety contractors, security professionals, and HVAC&R contractors have also done well.

Many electrical and plumbing businesses have adjusted their service offerings to suit the current conditions and have been able to ride through these changes fairly well.

We've also seen people going into business for themselves after being made redundant from an employer, and we have been helping with that process. It’s true that coronavirus has caused economic challenges, but the down time is great for preparing to launch full steam ahead when things return to normal.

Interestingly, speaking with investors, bankers and economists, we have been hearing that it was widely expected that a large correction was coming in the next year or so, and that the economic recovery from it would be slow and hard. The COVID-19 situation has moved that process forward a little and produced a massive amount of stimulus which has either been enacted or announced.

There has also been talk of getting the economies going again globally, and lots of talk about reducing our reliance on other countries for critical goods. Both of these topics of discussion are fantastic news for field service and trade contracting businesses.

For governments, one of the best ways to put life into an economy is by spending big on infrastructure. Field service and contracting businesses are directly in line with that kind of spending as they are the ones who carry out much of the work.

In my view and from what I am seeing many of our customers do, there is plenty to be doing right now to keep business turning over. As we come out of COVID-19, there will be so many opportunities, pent up demand and work to be done. We'll be thankful we spent this time preparing for the coming growth.

For more information on managing your field service business during the coronavirus outbreak, visit our COVID-19 Crisis Management Hub.

Curtis Thomson

Curtis Thomson

Curtis has a background in construction, network and software engineering, business system development and implementation.

Curtis started his career in the construction industry working with various contractors to meet builders’ obligations in defect liabilities on completed properties and issues concerning structural warranties.