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How Businesses Can Use This Downtime to Sharpen Their Saw

  • Mar 30, 2020
  • Quint Studer
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Stress and uncertainty can bring with them some valuable life lessons. One lesson is realizing there are things we can control and things we can’t. Some businesses have temporarily shut down. Some are operating with a skeleton crew. Still, others are close to “normal” (well, “new normal” anyway, with people working from home), but in some cases, the business has slowed to a crawl. All of these changes are due to forces beyond our control—yet there are many things we can control.


At times like these, great leaders look inward and use the time to regroup—or, as Dr. Stephen Covey would say, “sharpen the saw.” “Pausing” gives us the chance to work on our business (not just in our business) in a way we can’t do when things are booming. Right now, we may have time to invest in our people, facilities, client relationships, and plans for the future. Then, when the downturn reverses, and the economy comes surging back, we will be ready to catch the wave.


I know how painful things are today—I feel it, too. The health and safety of employees is the highest priority. But there’s no reason we can’t also set our sights high. Instead of thinking, How are we going to survive in the coming months? we can think, When this is all over, how can we get even better than we were before? I saw someone refer to it as daring to be successful. I like that.

What might sharpening your saw look like? Here are a few tips:

Tend to relationships. Now is the time to build emotional bank accounts. Folks will remember how you act right now, whether you make things easier or harder. You may not be able to connect in person but phone calls still matter. We’re all in this together. When you get a chance, reach out to employees, customers, and vendors just to let them know you care.

Spend time connecting with employees. Of course, you want to make sure they’re doing okay during this crisis. But also, remember they may have more downtime right now so be sure to use it wisely. Brainstorm with them on how you might do things better. Are they in the right seats? Who needs extra training and development? Who could take on new responsibilities? Sometimes we may be so busy we don’t give evaluations the thought they deserve. We may think of them as a box to check off. Now we have time to really pay attention.

Make a point to connect with your customers—without “selling” to them. Call them up and ask how they are doing. Ask, “Is there anything we can do to make life easier for you right now?” or “What can we do to help you prepare for when things start up again?” The idea is to show them you care about them as human beings, not just sources of revenue.

Use this time to connect with busy people. Is there someone you’ve been trying to collaborate with who is usually “too busy”? At this moment in time, they may not be. With so many businesses on pause, you may have more access to high-profile people. Get organized ahead of time and carefully frame your “asks” in a way that makes it easy for them to respond.
I invite you to check back in next week for more steps you can take to sharpen your saw, as well as a Downtime Assessment you can use to examine every part of your company to look for potential improvements.

Audit your company from top to bottom. Pick apart every division of your company—from product to financials to technology to suppliers to distribution to marketing. What needs rethinking? How can you improve efficiency and/or cut costs? Where are the upgrades and repairs needed? Do you see any opportunities to expand or contract offerings? (See full audit below)

Experience your business the way your customers do. Ride your own elevator, eat your own cooking, go through your own drive-thru, navigate your own website. Are things in good shape? What needs improvement?

Make all those virtual meetings really count. Studies show they can be far more effective than in-person meetings. Read up on how to make online meetings as effective as possible. Remember, people are feeling disconnected right now and may actually welcome the chance to hear coworkers’ voices and (if you’re videoconferencing) see their faces. 

Catch up on leadership training. Look around and you’ll find some great online opportunities. In fact, SCI is holding two FREE virtual sessions - "Your Business COVID-19 Legal Questions Answered" on April 2 and “Leading Change in Times of Uncertainty and Disruption” on April 7. They will be providing support, tools, and information to help everyone deal with the changes in the way people are working, keeping people engaged, supportive and effective communication, and creating positive outcomes.

Work on your personal brand and/or the brand of your company. Think about how customers experience your business and your brand and how you can add value. Get your website updated, figure out how to maximize your social media, start a blog or podcast, create e-learning sessions, or put together a white paper. In fact, if you’ve ever thought about writing a book, now is a great time. This can quickly establish you as an expert in your field and even a thought leader. 

Give your workplace a facelift. Now may be a good time to do a deep cleaning, make repairs, give the walls a new coat of paint, purge old files, etc. When things begin to get back to normal, it will be a pleasure for everyone to come back to a fresh new office.

Check-in with your accountant, attorney, and other key advisors. Their perspective might be extremely valuable right now. It’s a good idea to sit down with them yearly anyway to get the lay of the land so you can make smart decisions moving forward. If you haven’t done that lately, now’s your chance.

Start recording your COVID-19 expenses now. This could include everything from canceled business trips to cleaning supplies to helping employees set up at home. Don’t forget to include the time you spend responding to the pandemic, not just your cash outlays. It’s easier to start a file for all of this stuff now than to recreate it later when you may need it for government assistance, taxes, or some other purpose. 

Figure out where the puck is going. As world-famous hockey player Wayne Gretzky said, quoting his father, Walter Gretzky, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” It might be tough to predict in this environment but at least give it some thought and attention. No one else knows either, and your (well-thought-out) guess is as good as theirs. Right now you have some breathing room to think about the future and how your company might fit into it.

Yes, it’s a lot to think about! I suggest picking one or two of these items to focus on at a time and balancing them with your everyday duties as well as emergency actions that must be taken. Otherwise, you will be trying to drink from a firehose and will quickly get overwhelmed. When that happens, nothing gets done.

As mentioned earlier, a piece of the puzzle is managing anxiety. Fear can cloud our thinking and paralyze us. Staying busy can move us out of that place of fear, lighten our mood, and give us the courage and energy we need to stay the course. Stay positive, keep your eyes on the future, and keep moving forward. We will get through this crisis…and tomorrow will be as great and as prosperous as we decide it will be.

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Your Business COVID-19 Legal Questions Answered
Thursday, April 2 from 12 - 1:15 p.m. CST  |  Register for free

Leading Change in Times of Uncertainty + Disruption
Tuesday, April 7 from 9 - 10:15 a.m. CST  |  Register for free



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