Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson is a regular contributor to WRAL TechWire. His blog appears on Wednesdays.

RALEIGH – In the midst of this pandemic, every business and person you know is moving through something radically different than anything they have ever experienced. There are no mentors we can turn to, no tried-and-true pandemic expertise we can rely on and no step-by-step strategies we can diligently follow so that everything turns out ok. 

Instead, we have to make our own paths forward. We have to “survive and advance,” as Jim Valvano put it. 

Even so, history proves that times of depression and recession can be fertile grounds for innovation since they drive us to be more creative, nimble and efficient. These periods force us to re-evaluate how we spend and distribute resources to prepare for and thrive in an uncertain future. New leaders and new ideas emerge more easily in times of transition, proving the old maxim about necessity and invention. 

Obviously, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem, but I’d like to share with you some key principles I have learned while leading through the storm so you can not only survive but also advance.

Steps to take

Essentially, this pandemic is asking how fast and how well you can innovate. Right now creativity is a superpower and everyone is innovating in real-time. Your ability to adapt is the single most important factor in your capacity to endure. What you are doing today may not create the revenue you need to survive tomorrow. So hold your team accountable for their best ideas, and don’t be afraid to pivot.

In survival mode transparency is everything. Cut to the chase. Insist on honest and forthright discussions with your team, your clients, your partners and your investors. Don’t try to be what you’re not and don’t pretend that you have all the answers. Tell them what you know and what you don’t so that everyone has a clear understanding of what your business looks like now into the next few months. 

Remember that transparency works both ways. When you set the tone with sincerity and integrity, you foster a culture of open and healthy discussion.

Communicate with your investors especially so they know where you sit right now and what realistic options you have for moving forward.

Make difficult decisions with grace. The truth is you will face some tough decisions in the coming months. You’ve probably faced a thousand of them already. Do what is right for your business, but be as graceful as you can. Try to keep one eye on the future and treat people with respect so you don’t sacrifice long-term relationships. 

Remain committed to marketing. This one might sound a little self-serving, but it’s also true. In this atmosphere of economic downturn, where businesses are forced to compete for attention and capital like never before, it is important that your customers understand your value and your messaging. Marketing is one of the most critical expenditures you can make right now, although it often feels like the first and easiest expense to cut back. Instead, make your marketing more efficient so you know you’re getting maximum return on investment. 

At the same time, working in survival mode will not build a solid foundation for the future. To advance your business in this time of crisis, focus on your relationships with other businesses, your top team members and your clients. 

Teaching and talent

Lean on business partnerships to help expand sales. Referrals and references are more important now than ever before. Look for ways to share your sales leads with existing partners who have similar targets so everyone can benefit. Functional partnership helps shrink the sales cycle so we can be more efficient with our time, team and resources. 

Overinvest in your top talent. Employee turnover is not just financially damaging but marks a huge loss in brainpower, historic knowledge and team dynamic. Identify your top five to seven people, and don’t let them get lost in the shuffle. Make sure each of these movers and shakers has the support and resources they need to be successful. 

Also, make sure you have buy-in from C-suite executives. This crisis calls for business leaders who are ready and willing to participate in the decisive moments that will define a company’s future. To put it plainly, the needle will not move in any organization unless it’s being pushed by C-suite initiatives that help the business simultaneously survive and advance. 

If your business is consultative, become a good teacher. Share free advice and education with your clients that will help them also survive this time. By working as a resource, you focus on building a mutually beneficial long-term relationship. 

Last but perhaps most important, to survive and advance in times of crisis, you must think like a startup. If you want to learn what that means in daily practice, I highly recommend The Startup Hats by David Gardner of Cofounders Capital. His audiobook and podcasts encourage all leaders to think like startup CEOs. Be resourceful, be curious and learn to move quickly. As the long history of business proves, the larger any company grows, the smaller it thinks. Startup CEOs are more agile and innovative. Focus on the possibilities, not the roadblocks. 

This year has certainly brought some roadblocks. It has forced every one of us to survive and advance. Of course, sustainable growth never follows a straight line. It ebbs and flows. It adapts to the obstacles. The world is grieving, but in the midst of that grief there are also tremendous opportunities for advancement if you can only cut through the clutter.

I’m taking a deeper dive into the topic on this week’s episode of the Donald Thompson podcast, Selling Through The Storm, where we’ll discuss the Great Recession of 2008 and what I learned about survival and advancement by leading through that crisis. I hope you’ll listen in.

About The Author

With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, Donald Thompson is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture and driving exponential growth. Donald is currently CEO of Walk West, a digital marketing firm recognized by Inc. as the fastest growing agency in North Carolina for 2018 and 2019, and of The Diversity Movement, a technology driven D&I consultancy.  In addition, Donald serves on boards for several organizations in technology, marketing, sports and entertainment, and is a mentor for Google for Entrepreneurs Exchange.

You can connect with Donald on LinkedIn or at donaldthompson.com.

Previous Donald Thompson blogs at WRAL TechWire

‘An entrepreneur:’ Meet Donald Thompson, newest contributor to WRAL TechWire

It’s OK not to be OK: Leading and succeeding in an era of uncertainty