What I have learnt from 400 business leaders in lockdown.
March 2020. I was due to host a Future Skills Summit, with guest speakers from across the UK holding plenaries on the circular economy, the Internet of Things and the changing workplace. I was also facilitating a two-day summit on big data and tourism in partnership with the University of Brighton.
As Programme Director for Essex 2020, over 1000 events stretched ahead, bringing together big engineering firms, artists, libraries, teenage hackers – you name it – to celebrate science and creativity in misunderstood towns.
But by the 23rd, I was suddenly very available. And quite frightened.
Much of my professional life has revolved around creating spaces for people to scale new ideas or deepen connections with the communities they serve. It took a little while to recalibrate and to fully understand that the spaces we now needed to occupy were digital ones. The upside is that the always possible team could spend time working with construction to the arts, hospitality, retail, tech, and more.
If it’s possible to distil some of the insights into five lessons, regardless of sector or size, it is these:
1. Never underestimate your team
People tend to pull out the stops in a crisis. And the past 12 months has pushed leaders to re-evaluate the value, wellbeing and capacity to innovate of the people around them. Nearly always finding a previously untapped well of ‘can-do and mend’.
We’ve been asked to help with restructures and shifts to home-working, but the genuine joy is seeing people fall back in love with their work when they can permit themselves to do things differently, to step back and be reminded of their core mission. “We just feel so useful to our customers again”, one tech COO told me – and that energy is infectious.
Ambition + fear x decision-making = noise. And we’ve been hearing over and again that many small business owners are getting tinnitus from the shrill push and pull of what they’re told they should be doing. From making spaces Covid secure to launching new digital products, we’ve learnt there is not a single new process that doesn’t benefit from some critical friendship.
And it doesn’t need to cost the Earth. Across Sussex, programmes such as the Business Hothouse, the BRITE programme, and all local growth hubs have provided fully-funded support. In East Sussex, we’ve been running the >BRE AK THROUGH programme for female and ethnic minority founders and giving access to over £1m of growth grants to a range of SMEs as part of the South East Business Boost.
3. Get an external
Targeted mini-research projects are essential at getting teams back on track and putting their energy in the right places. And new resources like the Brighton Business & IP Centre can help with that.
4. Create an evidence-based of opportunity
In the thick of Brexit and the pandemic, ‘uncertainty’ has become the watchword. So the requests we have had for help rebuilding knowledge of the market, what customers actually need, and business and investor confidence.
5. Breakdown your priorities
INTO NOW, NEXT, AND LATER Through providing 1:1s, workshops and grants to over 400 businesses across the UK, the always possible team have perfected a way for businesses to navigate the next 12 months. Whether for a whole business or for a particular product or idea, the key is using engineering techniques that turn the mountain to climb, but a series of small mounds.
Fourteen months on, and I can be more reflective about the different and complex decisions over 400 teams and executives have been making in the sectors we have more people, giving advice and practical support – but mainly just listening.
❛❛It took a little while to recalibrate and to fully understand that the spaces we now needed to occupy were digital ones. ❜❜
always possible is looking for just 100 ambitious businesses to be part of a unique post-traumatic growth community, benefiting from a new style of mentoring, research and action planning that actually works.
To register your interest in free or low-cost access to post-COVID planning support and a unique network of peers – visit alwayspossible.co.uk/The100