COVID-19 isn’t an ‘asteroid’

COVID-19: Leadership Series Header - Tony Wilkins

It’s more important than ever for companies to inform, support and connect with employees and customers during the uncertain times that COVID-19 has created. The only thing that’s certain during the COVID-19 outbreak is that circumstances and facts are changing at a dizzying pace. How are business leaders staying connected with internal and external audiences in the 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 Tony Wilkins, a veteran early stage private investor with Standing Oaks Venture Partners and AEWilkins Holdings Inc. Wilkins mentors and supports entrepreneurs, focusing on disruptive products and services that improve efficiency, business and social outcomes. His corporate experience has been largely in institutional and asset management sales, including a 15-year career at Northern Trust.

Do any C-suite leaders stand out for their guidance during COVID-19?

First, here’s a bad example. A company decided to lay people off and the leader didn’t do it. It was a person in human resources. The employees dialed into Zoom and it was just a voice – no video – and they were told they were being laid off. Then the Zoom was disconnected. That must be the worst thing in the world because it violates several leadership basics.

The good things most leaders are doing are transparency, empathy and reality. Transparency is, ‘Hey, here’s how it’s affecting our business.’ Great leaders are bringing people into reality. Empathy is personally letting folks know, ‘This is going to be tough’ in their own voice. People are smart. They don’t want things sugarcoated. It’s far better to not sugarcoat and cut deeply once than it is to cut a lot of little nicks and keep people wondering what’s happening next.

Be decisive and say, ‘We’re going to have to cut and furlough, and we don’t know when people are coming back.’ This cuts down on the terror that people’s imaginations come up with. Great leaders can mitigate this terror.

“People are smart. They don’t want things sugarcoated.”

Which leaders will come out ahead post-coronavirus?

The people who are making rapid and long-term decisions about the future will be successful. One example is a retail service business that absolutely depends on foot traffic. In March, the owner said she’d start letting a couple of people go that she was on the fence about, furlough a few people, figure out who she wasn’t going to pay and who’d she pay later, and called all of them. When I told her about the lending help for small businesses, she told me she’d already applied for it. That’s a hallmark of someone who’s going to make it.

Will COVID-19 fundamentally change how businesses operate?

I think the biggest thing we’ll find is that so many of the companies that couldn’t come to grips with the idea of letting their workers work from home will now have it forced on them. Corporations will realize the world didn’t fall apart when their workers were out of sight. People who are working from home now will say, ‘I really don’t want to have to go back into the office five days a week.’ With 5G around the corner, utilization of the internet and communication devices will start to skyrocket.

Some practices we think are normal now will disappear. A lot of unnecessary face-to-face contact and entertaining will go away in sales and service. Business travel, which took one hit after 9/11, will take another one after COVID-19. Some things that seem unthinkable today will become normal. With the “internet of things” and faster data speeds – in addition to being scanned for weapons and alcohol at events – you’ll probably be scanned for your physical health or vaccination records at the gate. If you have a fever or a cold, you won’t be allowed in. Businesses will be held accountable for patrons who get sick. This really will affect the insurance and legal professions.

“Some practices we think are normal now will disappear.”

What do you recommend companies do immediately if they haven’t already?

The No. 1 thing I’m telling people to do is to hit the brakes on ‘new’ sales. Everyone is buckling down and conserving their cash. Instead, reach out to existing customers and prospects and be of service in any way you can. By improving authentic and personal relationships with your existing clients, you’ll have a better feel for when they’re back on their feet and when you can start to talk about solving less-urgent problems – that is, sell again. Do this so they won’t get poached by your competitors. The last thing you want to do is lose a client these days. People don’t care how much you know; they want to know how much you care. Now is the time to show them compassion and empathy. You can sell again when people start to share problems and you can address them with your product.

No one knows when COVID-19 will end. How can businesses plan with so much uncertainty?

We have a lot of software that allows us to do scenario planning. That’s the exercise I’m going through with both of my businesses and my clients. What’s the worst you can imagine? A double dip in October when flu season comes back around? Let’s do the planning and see how we can survive until next April. Between technology, common sense, getting perspectives from trusted colleagues, data sources and science, we’ll all figure it out.

Do you see any opportunities for businesses to innovate and/or expand into new areas despite COVID-19?

I think the business of remotely monitoring health will grow dramatically. I see opportunities for health care technology companies, especially those that offer wearables and data platforms for monitoring vital signs. This pandemic will accelerate what we do to rationalize care, and the technology to improve and detect wellness is right around the corner. More importantly, people are more willing to share that data. Health professionals will be able to see if people are taking their medicine, exercising, catching a cold or worse. As I mentioned before, security will include health security by ‘electronically frisking’ sick people who want to enter buildings or events.

As for other businesses, they’ll have the opportunity to cut costs they had never considered cutting before because that’s the way they’ve always done things. For example, we’ve already seen at least one CEO talk about eliminating their company’s physical presence. That’s extreme but, I think, directionally informative. For the rest of this year, I envision cost containment versus business growth after the coronavirus ‘all-clear’ is given.

Is the economic stimulus package the lifeline small businesses need?

Yes. I think it’s a very important Band-Aid. The small businesses that will survive are the ones that have already been proactive. There’s no doubt in my mind that the stimulus will help them recover faster. I would also say that I don’t think we’re going to see people losing their homes and businesses like we did during the 2008 financial crisis. That crisis was caused by Main Street and Wall Street doing things they weren’t supposed to do financially for quite a long while, leaving lots of excesses to be unwound.

Business should start to pick back up in June and July. If we don’t have a recurrence of the virus in October, we’ll be on the road to recovery by this time next year. The moment we learn there’s a vaccine that will knock this thing out, the markets – Main Street and Wall Street – will pop back quickly.

“The small businesses that will survive are the ones that have already been proactive.”

How important is it to maintain a positive mindset during this challenging time?

It’s incredibly important. I don’t think this is the asteroid that will put humankind out of existence. I tell people that when you listen to something on the news, you have to remember that some portion of a news organization’s job is to keep you watching TV so they can sell ads. You can’t keep people watching with boring statistics. When you see a cavalcade of COVID-19 stories of people dying without any perspective, such as how many people died in the past month of regular flu, heart disease or accidents, you don’t get comparative statistics. We need to consider the reality, historical perspective and the motivations of the organizations that deliver the content we’re consuming and think – positively and realistically – for ourselves.  

During COVID-19, Tony Wilkins is keeping his spirits up with biking.
Tony is an avid bicyclist.

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

I’m trying to maintain my immune system as much as possible. That means getting more sleep, engaging in modest exercise, eating better and meditating to minimize stress. I was already doing these things before COVID-19, but I wasn’t paying as much attention to them as I am now. I was a four- to five-hour sleeper. Now, I’m up to 6½ hours. Previously, I would ‘try’ to have breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’m being more intentional about it. You can’t supercharge your immune system, but you can fill it.

Get more crisis communications tips and pro advice for staying connected with your remote teams.

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

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