I had the privilege of delivering the keynote address at this year’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Ghana Employers Association on Thursday September 15, 2022. It was a heavily attended session, featuring representatives from all the institutions in Ghana (both public and private), Norway’s Ambassador to Ghana, Ingrid Mollestad and the Deputy Minister for Employment, Hon. Bright Wereko Brobbey.
The event was around the theme of sustaining businesses amidst macroeconomic challenges. It was a theme I found prescient, given the situation with most global economies following the COVID-19 pandemic and other attendant economic challenges in the past two years.
Here are the key points of my message:
Today, across the world, the business landscape has transformed. The pandemic has turned history on its head and has reminded business leaders to grow sustainably. A PwC Pulse Survey of Executive views on business found that nearly 70% of business leaders globally believed that COVID-19 will turn from a pandemic to an endemic in 2022 with complex challenges ahead. Another recent survey conducted by the Africa Business Panel on the African business environment had some interesting observations:
- About two-thirds of the companies said they were struggling but will survive.
- Of all the professionals drawn from across the countries in Africa, South African companies appeared the least optimistic.
- However, in Ghana, there was sunny optimism. Only 3 per cent of Ghanaian participants were concerned the company they worked for will collapse; which demonstrated the great resilience, faith and adaptability of the Ghanaian employee.
However, the question remains: How do we sustain our business in the midst of macroeconomic challenges?
Adversity is nothing new for us Employers. However, there’s a huge difference between running and sustaining a business during an economic downturn. Let me start by saying: I don’t have all the answers. But having led the successful and arguably the biggest transformation of a brand and business ownership in the country, followed by running a business through the pandemic—and having seen so many of my customers do the same—I do have some insights into what we can do to weather this storm.
It all starts with Leadership:
As businesses navigate this temporary blip:
- Don’t be “the ostrich” – who preserves the status quo, and just hopes for the best
- Nor “the bull in the China shop” – who blindly cuts expenses across the board
- Rather be “the fox” – use the downturn to make your business more effective so that when the operating environment improves, you’ll be in an even better position to grow sustainably taking advantage of emerging trends and new opportunities.
As leaders in challenging times, let’s assume the best intentions and support our employees as humans. Be patient and have a listening ear and be willing to do the work. Leading from the front lines is one of the strongest ways to show your team the work they do matters. Get involved on the shop floor, not just with marketing & sales teams but operations and other supporting functions. Operate with integrity, put in the time to do the right things and do things right. Your legacy goes beyond a crisis period.
Create a business continuity plan
If the pandemic or economic challenges taught us nothing at all, at least we now know enough to keep an eye on our business continuity plans. A carefully thought-out business continuity plan will make coping in a crisis easier. It will also enable you to minimize disruption to your business and customers. It is a way of proving to customers, investors and all stakeholders that your business is robust enough to cope with unforeseen circumstances or anything that might occur unplanned.
Prioritize your customers
Focus on creating something that truly adds value for your customers. Figure out their challenges, draw closer to them and take even better care of them. This improves your chance of keeping existing clients and building loyalty. The key here is to provide excellent customer service or after sales service. You can also keep them happy by running loyalty or customer incentive programmes. Happy customers can also help you diversify your business by referrals – introducing new clients or help you recognize new opportunities that could help you diversify to new markets or products and services.
Support your colleagues/ employees
As employers, we must build morale and motivation by clearly communicating with our staff on what is happening within the operating environment and its impact on our business. It is important to be mindful of the language being used. Language is the vehicle for processing thought and how we come across to our employees will be the difference between creating unnecessary panic or establishing reassurance.
Some organizations may need to reduce staff strength or hours. e.g., you could ask some of your full-time staff to work part time for a period. You might have to change, or even freeze your hiring plans during an economic downturn, but that doesn’t mean you have to halt your growth. If you do need to let some staff go to save money, make sure you understand your contractual obligations for ending employment.
You should also conduct skills assessment, identify the gaps needed to make them future fit and train/retrain your employees to equip them for the journey ahead. Remember you still need operational excellence during a downturn, so build “The Team” not just the A* players. The best outcome sits in collective wisdom.
Sharpen your ways of working
Cut the bureaucracy or red tape. When things are going well, employers might not notice inefficiencies. I’ve seen how hard it can be to stay lean as you grow. Processes can become bloated, policies can get convoluted, and you might end up talking about work more than doing the work in a season like this. Encourage your team to be doers not hearers only. Next, businesses must learn to be nimble and agile in challenging times. Learn to switch your strategy around and make it more technology inclusive. Innovation would help you adapt to changing market conditions and stay ahead of your competitors. As part of this process, you should review if using technology will increase efficiency, reduce costs and make your business more competitive. Automation can help fill the gaps. Automation can also free up your existing team to take care of customers. I came across a company’s values that said, “Don’t be a robot, build the robot.“. 74% of businesses surveyed in a 2021 survey said that automation helped them feel prepared to handle unexpected crises.
When there’s economic uncertainty, it’s more important than ever to support your partners and rely on them to support you too. Internally, the different departments within your organization must not work as silos. Using an external lens, networking can be useful to understand how other businesses are coping and reducing your risks. Consider forming alliances with other business, for example, by offering complementary services.
As I said in the beginning, adversity is nothing new for employers and leaders. It might have been the pandemic in 2020 or the macroeconomic instability today. The future could present other challenges. We must continuously plan, learn to put in the right risk measures and continuity programmes and form a regular habit of meeting to discuss and monitor the readiness of the plan. Habitual planning and anticipation and adequate mitigation measures will put us in a good place to deal with the unexpected if it shows up.
So dear business leaders, I will end with a paraphrased statement from the American Sailing website: “When there is economic uncertainty, truly good employers are never the ones screaming and throwing tantrums, they are the ones figuring things out while customers and shareholders are allowed to scream and throw tantrums.” Nevertheless, beyond being calm under duress, the best employers are usually just calm in general. It’s a disposition that serves nearly every catastrophic situation and excellent business leaders know it. To be calm is to be clear of mind and clarity is an enormous advantage when leading a business through challenging times. As employers, our role is to absorb the heat and transmit clarity to our employees. The calmness can then be harnessed into powerful tools:
- It starts with leadership
- Create a business continuity plan
- Prioritize your customers
- Support your colleagues/employees/staff
- Sharpen your ways of working
- And collaborate [internally & externally], build partnerships and network.
Remember! Don’t be the ostrich, nor “the bull in the China shop.” Rather be “the fox” – use the downturn to make your business more effective so when the operating environment improves, you’ll be in an even better position to grow sustainably
The writer, Abena Osei-Poku, is the Managing Director of Absa Bank Ghana Limited.