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Some Startups Thrive During Crises: Here’s How

By Edward Sullivan and John Baird

Carly Stein, Founder & CEO of Beekeeper’s Naturals, speaks to other founders on a regular basis, and even more so over the last couple months. Like most first time entrepreneurs, she’s been asking: What do I need to do to survive this pandemic and how can I prepare for future obstacles? 

Most of the advice she got looked like this: conserve your cash by laying off 20% of the team and cutting salaries for the rest. If you look around, many companies have heeded that advice. Some had to when revenue flatlined. Others have simply gone on the defense to play it safe and hibernate, hoping to wait this out.

But Carly didn’t do that. 

Instead of hunkering down, she’s decided to level-up by investing in her team culture, leading with humility, affirming Beekeeper’s values, and taking smart risks to turn this crisis into an opportunity. As a result, sales are up, the team is intact, and she’s actually being proactively courted by new investors. 

In conversations with many of our CEO coaching clients in recent weeks, from Beekeeper’s Naturals and MasterClass to Bombas, Remitly and Hinge, we’re finding that the companies that are truly thriving right now not only have strong business practices that work– they have cultures that work. For them, putting culture and people first has been the formula to help them thrive during this crisis.

Here’s what these high-performing CEOs have told us they are all doing to help their teams and companies thrive right now:

  • Do More of What Was Working: Didier Elzinga, CEO of Culture Amp, says instead of making a drastic switch into an austere “wartime mode,” effective leaders today are doubling down on existing cultural norms and making their people feel safe.

  • Double Down on the Mission: Matt Oppenheimer, Co-founder and CEO of Remitly, has rallied his team to double down on their mission of transforming the lives of immigrants and their families with new financial solutions that are especially needed during this difficult time. In doing so, he keeps his team focused on the communities they serve which helps them feel like they are part of the solution.

  • Communicate Vulnerability and Transparency: Carly Stein of Beekeeper’s Naturals additionally reported that being even more open about her own blindspots right now has allowed other leaders in the company to step up, flex their strengths, and feel good about themselves for adding more value. Modeling these behaviors from the top gives other leaders the space to do the same.

  • Impose Time-Off Across the Board: MasterClass co-founder and CEO David Rogier knew his team was dealing with work, family and a pandemic, so in addition to individualized time off, he instituted an office-wide half-day-Fridays policy while the team works from home.

  • Help People Share What They are Feeling: Justin McLeod, CEO of Hinge, has converted the entire team’s Slack statuses from “Home, Away, Busy, etc.” to “Happy, Stressed, Lonely, Sick, Offline” so people know how best to show up for each other. 

  • Create Structure Around Connection: Dave Heath, the CEO of Bombas, the company that has made “comfort” its mission, now begins all of his company all-hands meetings with intimate breakout sessions for 4-5 employees to check in personally and explicitly NOT talk about work.

It may seem counterintuitive to focus on culture when markets are volatile and the future is uncertain, but it really comes down to the age old adage: Focus on what you can control. None of us have control over macroeconomic trends, policy changes, or the timeline on finding a vaccine, but we can influence how our teams are feeling and performing. 

That’s why the CEOs we work with are following this plan: double-down on what’s working, focus on the mission, stay humble and transparent, and create a safe holding environment for people to share what’s really going on for them.

This is the best recipe we know of to drive bottomline results during a crisis — by helping your team stay creative, hopeful, and high performing, even if we will all still be working in  our pajamas for the foreseeable future.

Edward Sullivan and John Baird are respectively the CEO and Chairman of Velocity Group, a leading Executive Coaching firm with operations in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and London. They are also authors of the upcoming book “The Power of Insight,” which will be released by Harper Collins in 2021.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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