By Dr Stephanie Hussels, Director of the Bettany Centre for Entrepreneurship

For most business owner-managers, the unforeseen crisis of Covid-19 meant devoting energy wholly into adapting and stabilising as the situation unfolded.

But as we move into the latter stages of the year, and begin to shift our gaze towards the future and our new version of normal – where should we be focusing our attention?

The doyen of management thinkers, the late great Peter Drucker, wrote that business leaders had three essential tasks:

  1. To run today’s business
  2. To make today’s business better, and
  3. To fashion a new business for a new tomorrow.

He argued that how chief executives choose to divide their time between these tasks, is critical to the ultimate success of their firms.

In Cranfield’s support for owner-managers, we translate the wisdom of Ducker into spending time working in the business and time working on the business. Most ambitious business founders we meet need to rebalance their time - to give more attention to working on their businesses. The events of 2020 make this more urgent than ever: today’s business must be better, and the new business for tomorrow must be better still.

At the time this article is written, Covid-19 has been with us for nearly seven months, although it seems much longer. In the earlier part of the year, independent businesses, like the rest of the economy, were overwhelmed by this unforeseen crisis. For most of us, our energies were wholly devoted to adapting rapidly to what seemed to be the new normal. The pandemic did not arrive with a manual and we have had to improvise, stabilise and regroup merely to get through.

As we move into late autumn, Covid-19 is still with us - but at least we have had time to catch our breath, and shift our gaze towards the future. Our conversations with Cranfield alumni business founders tell us that there are three primary areas on which to focus:

Understanding the implications of the current economic climate on your supply chain, specifically your suppliers and customers, and undertaking scenario planning

The pandemic has over-shadowed the UK’s exit from the EU. Now this is firmly back on the agenda, and there is a huge amount of uncertainty. Official data tells us that most small firms - perhaps 8 out of 10 - do not export directly, and not to the EU. However many of their customers do, and their supply chains may depend historically on the free flow of goods and services from mainland Europe. Do you fully understand the extended supply chain into which you fit? Have you systematically worked through the lists of “what ifs?”, and developed plans to manage different scenarios?

Top tip: Map your extended supplier chain, to include your customers’ customers and your suppliers’ suppliers. What challenges will they face in the coming months?

Are you now fully on top of your sales and marketing, and have you rethought how to reach your customers?

The trends towards digital communication has been dramatically accelerated. Working from home was once the exception. Today a salesforce which was previously on the road might well be making calls from their home offices. Has your business fully adapted its processes to the changes your customers have also been through in the same time? Have you found a way to communicate why your product and services are a ‘must’ spend for your customers, to overcome their uncertainty and authorise those purchase orders? Standing back and looking at your business dispassionately, can you say that your sales and marketing are truly best in class? And if not, do you and your team have a plan that maps out how and when you will get there?

Top tip: In this new world, “mystery shop” your own business, to see it through your customers’ eyes and find out how attractive you are to do business with.

Lastly, looking after the welfare of your staff and yourself with the winter looming

The Covid-19 crisis has made exceptional demands on the health and resilience of business founders and their staff. Despite earlier hopes, it is now clear that getting through this period of disruption will be a marathon, not a sprint.

So, ensure you regularly speak to your staff and ask them what keeps them awake at night. Do not assume it is the same for them as it is for you. Listen, and switch the conversation from advocacy to enquiry. As for yourself, know your sources of stress and anxiety, and work out which ones you can control and which you cannot. If you are in this for the long haul, both you and your staff will need to be in the best possible shape.

Top tip: Take five minutes every day to reflect. Ask yourself whether you have arrangements in place to ensure that everyone in the business has their physical and mental wellbeing fully taken care of.

It’s in your hands

In spite of all that is going on, there is much that founders can still do to turn this crisis into an opportunity to reshape their businesses for the better. Act now, and you’ll be in the best possible shape for the winter to come.

Find out more

About Cranfield University

Cranfield University is a specialist postgraduate university that is a global leader for education and transformational research in technology and management.