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Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

Thanks to Sandy Asanovic and The Simons Group for interviewing me for a guest blog post! The original is here, re-posted below for convenience.

It’s more important than ever for companies to inform, support and connect with employees and customers during a crisis and uncertain times. The only thing that’s certain during COVID-19 is that circumstances and facts are changing at a dizzying pace. How are business leaders staying connected with internal and external audiences in the crisis era of large-scale quarantines, social distancing and remote work?

Executives, business owners and other leaders are sharing their insights with us and, in turn, we’re sharing them with you to help your organization maintain relationships, communication and trust. They’re also offering personal stories about how they’re coping with the anxiety and stress all of us are feeling. There’s no end game. No sales pitch. We hope their suggestions and perspectives help.

Here, we feature Andrew Bartlow, founder and managing partner of Series B Consulting, which helps startup executives build and execute a strong people strategy. He’s a former human resources (HR) executive who’s adept at helping executives accelerate growth and reduce the risk of failure.

What advice do you have for business leaders during the COVID-19 crisis?

Start by putting on your own oxygen mask. You must take care of yourself physically, emotionally and financially, and then you can move to help your team and your company do the same. What I’m seeing, especially with HR executives in tech startups, is an all-consuming focus on trying to help their organizations. Many have not put on their own oxygen masks.

Why is it so important to put on your own oxygen mask first?

We’re HR leaders – not doctors – but you can draw some parallels. Many people are in short-term crisis mode. If the doctors aren't sleeping, eating and exercising, and are under stress all the time, they won’t be as effective at taking care of patients. If you’re not taking care of yourself, you may be able to provide more support in the short-term, but you’re also likely to burn out quickly. You can take care of others more effectively and for a longer period if you’re taking care of yourself. This is important, because this crisis is not going to be over in the next couple of weeks. Leaders, therefore, should continue to take care of themselves, so they can provide better support to their teams over the long term – and that includes starting to think about longer-term planning and strategies.

“We're HR leaders - not doctors - but you can draw some parallels."

During a time of great uncertainty, how do we prepare for what’s next?

It requires some intentional focus on the future. We humans exhibit a lot of avoidance behaviors. If something is difficult, we find a way to avoid it. There’s a lot that’s difficult right now. You can take back some sense of control by figuring out what you can do to be useful and productive, and then start working on it. When you’re coming up with a plan amid a lot of ambiguity, you must do scenario planning. For example, you can decide that when you hit ‘this’ mark, you’re going to take ‘this’ action, based on the key levers of your business. That said, you don’t want to build an overcomplicated mouse trap. A plan can’t and shouldn’t be overly complicated or you’ll never do it and it will never fit.

Your consulting business focuses on tech startups. Has anything surprised you about their responses to the COVID-19 crisis?

Surprise may be too strong of a word. So many technology startups have been in a competitive market for talent, where I think the first instinct was to spend more doing more for people. I think that’s a potentially dangerous response in the current environment. You need to be looking at your spend and doing as much as possible to help people, while being fiscally responsible. It shocked me how much time and energy initially went into scheduling online yoga classes and meditation sessions and buying plants for employees’ home offices. If those well-intended programs take the focus off how to control costs to avoid or reduce layoffs, that would be a terrible shame. This crisis will likely result in a ‘back-to-basics’ approach for many businesses.

Andrew Bartlow working from his home office.

Will layoffs, furloughs and other cost-cutting measures save companies that are in crisis mode?

Hopefully, but that depends upon how long this lasts and the revenue versus cost structure of each business. What I see in tech companies is a strongly imprinted desire to treat people really well. Initially, there was a huge fear of communicating a hiring freeze or cutting back on any offerings. You can and should treat people generously, but if you don’t take rapid and decisive action, your company may not survive. Overcome the avoidance behaviors, put your plan together, and figure out what your critical triggers are while looking at your cash burn rates. Then, decide what you need to do about it. Layoffs are the last resort. You can do a number of things before that. That said, it’s better to overreact versus underreact, because the very survival of your business may be at stake if you don’t. The longer the pandemic lasts and the longer it takes the economy to recover, the more companies will suffer and potentially fail.

“What I see in tech companies is a strongly imprinted desire to treat people really well.”

Over the past few weeks, many tech startups have made difficult decisions that have affected their workers. I truly hope those actions were fast enough and dramatic enough to help them see their way through this time. Fortunately, the federal pandemic unemployment assistance program provides an incredible financial safety net for people who have lost jobs or had their hours and wages affected by the crisis.

When will it be OK for companies to sell again?

I don’t know. Just like we’re still figuring out what the triggers are for lifting shelter-in-place rules, we’re still figuring out how to navigate selling during this time. The best thing you can do is to look for ways to add value to your customers and put together a plan for how to keep the doors open under various scenarios. It will probably be a while before we return to ‘normal.’

One organization I know well offers coaching for employees, and that had been a pretty lively market – especially among tech companies. It was viewed as valuable for the employee experience. That CEO is now shaping their offering to appeal to companies that are trying to save money. He’s repositioning their offering as a cost-reduction opportunity versus purely an employee experience enhancement. That said, he’s being careful. It’s hard to sell the same thing from two opposing angles. Be aware of your branding and be sensitive to the environment we’re all in.

“Be aware of your branding and be sensitive to the environment we’re all in.”

Everyone is focused on generosity now. How are you helping?

I’m offering free coaching sessions to anyone who would find value, but it’s surprising how low the uptake has been. People are still in crisis mode and haven’t made much room for planning and ongoing development – even though the volume of content has exploded. I’m also offering webinars, holding calls with venture capital and private equity talent partners, and offering insights to the broader professional community through my blog and social media posts. Specifically, I’m creating resources where I see information gaps. For example, I wrote, “Save Your Startup,” which lists practical actions for rapid and decisive belt-tightening. I also created the “Reduction in Force Toolkit” to help startups that face layoffs during the COVID-19 crisis.

How should companies communicate with their employees and customers as COVID-19 grinds on?

Communicate more frequently and more transparently. Be deeply authentic and vulnerable, which means, in part, if you don’t know something, say that you don’t know yet. Turn off the spin and be real. Also, balance facts and emotions. Now is the time to be more sensitive to people in your communications. Focus more on the impact to your audience rather than on yourself.

I’m seeing many companies hold all-hands meetings every one to two weeks and send out employee communications every one to two weeks. The companies that are communicating well are anticipating the questions that are most important to employees and addressing them every single time. A big one is, ‘Could I be laid off?’ Also, ‘Could I lose my job?’ Even if someone doesn’t ask these questions, you should be addressing them as the leader.

Be transparent with your customers as well. Under times of duress, relationships are deeply affected, and it could mean those relationships grow much closer and more trusting – or it could mean trust is completely shattered. Now is not the time for standard selling. Now is the time for supporting. Reach out to your customers and contacts with empathy. ‘Hey Andrew, we’re thinking about you here at X company, and we’re ready to support you in any way that we can.’ I’ve seen companies offer free trials and services. That’s a more appropriate response than continuing pre-pandemic methods of selling.

“Turn off the spin and be real.”

From a personal perspective, how are you coping during the pandemic?

I’ve been going on walks and hikes in my neighborhood, watching Netflix, reading with my 6-year-old daughter and doing Zoom calls with family and friends. We’re also cooking a lot more at home.

As a business leader, how are you engaging with your internal and external audiences during the COVID-19 crisis? Let us know in the comments below.


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