In 1996, I launched my company, Working Solutions, with $1,000 of my own money as a one-woman operation in Omaha, Nebraska. Amelia Earhart Street near Eppley Airfield isn’t far from the original office. I always liked Earhart’s spirit. Her style. Her courage in the face of uncertainty. Her leadership continues to capture our imaginations today.
In all my years as a chief executive, I’ve never experienced the combined uncertainty that all businesses face today in America: an ongoing pandemic, economic downturn, and social unrest.
Running a woman-owned, private company, I find myself applying lessons I’ve learned over the years to overcome these uncertain times. Business scars from earlier experiences remind us how to survive.
Now is the time for executives to share insights to help new leaders build, maintain and grow their businesses even as we all face challenges never seen before. So here are a few of mine.
Lesson #1 – Innovate during Downtime
No customers coming in the door? Use that time to improve operations. In practice, my business career began by scooping ice cream. As a teenager, I was up to my elbows in Daiquiri Ice and Pink Bubblegum. Thirty-one signature scoops for each day of the month. At the end of a shift, I wore most of them.
I learned some great business lessons at that Baskin-Robbins franchise on Memorial Drive in Stone Mountain, Georgia. And that brought us to the 32nd flavor, Sweet Success, driven by resourcefulness.
Here’s how it worked. If no customers were in the store, I’d innovate. Streamline the freezer. Experiment while making a birthday cake. Combine different flavors for a new sundae. Create and churn out product. That hustle stayed with me, inventing in place. Taking what’s right in front of you, in the moment (no matter how dire), and making more out of it. Works in any industry or situation, even in these times.
Lesson #2 – Stay Close to the Front Lines
Leading a business involves a wide range of life experiences. Working Solutions is a hometown business, with employees and agents in big cities and small communities. Normally, I’d visit them where they live and work. Sit down for a meal, exchange ideas and hear their stories. Being with them is enlightening and inspiring. For me, life isn’t so much about big experiences. Rather, it’s more about those small, shared ones—each building on the next. One person, one place, one day at a time.
With the pandemic, I turned to Zoom for get-togethers, as well as one-on-ones to keep the lines of communications open. For employees, we had a virtual cooking session with Darren McGrady, Princess Diana’s chef. He walked us through preparing one of her favorite salmon dishes. Fostering comradery can be done online and ensures a more cohesive operation in a crisis.
Frontline workers are the first line for any business. Their know-how keeps us all in the know.
Lesson #3 – Embrace Emotional Intelligence
In previous work positions I chalked up a lot of marketing and management experience before starting my own company. I held senior management positions in consulting and in the financial and insurance industries. Beyond gaining hard skills in these positions, I acquired soft ones, too. And I brought them with me to my own business to establish a high degree of emotional intelligence with employees and contractors, creating a caring culture. And if there’s ever been a time to show you care, it’s these days.
Experience has taught me if you show genuine interest for your team and community, immediately you find the level of respect for clients and other team members rises. Also, you will find business results increase, and the team is honestly happy with each other’s success. That’s how you form true partnerships—inside and outside the company.
Lesson #4 – Take a Hard Look at your Business Model
Because customer service demand rises and falls with clients’ ups and downs, what we’ve needed over the years is a business model that cuts an even line through economic upticks and downturns. In boat design, it’s called a wave-piercing hull. We do that by offering different levels of service—from steady state for normal business to ready state for market surges to future state for rollouts or launches.
With COVID 19, businesses are operating at reduced capability, and sales and customer service has moved more to online, over the phone and pick-ups. In-person continues to be limited.
Consumers still need help reserving flights, ordering groceries, and even figuring out their exercise app. Because we’ve always had a work-from-home model, our agents have been able to keep working without interruption, without having to shift to a new workplace environment.
Lesson #5 – Find and Be a Mentor
Mentorship can make a significant difference in your professional and personal life. Throughout my career, professionals such as Mary Masur showed me the way. Mary ran her own consulting company. She tempered risk with backup and surrounded herself with good people. Role models like Mary kept me out of harm’s way. Thanks to my mentors, I’m blessed. In return, I follow this rule: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”
As a graduate of the University of Georgia, I delivered a keynote at a Communication Studies graduation. For the City of Plano, I served on the Self-sufficiency Committee, which works with citizens to achieve economic stability to buy a home. Talking one-on-one with employees and agents, I offer professional and personal advice. All the while, I think about the people who’ve helped me. We’re all indebted to someone. So return the favor, especially these days.
Becoming a successful business owner isn’t easy. It takes courage in the face of uncertainty and learning from the lessons of others and your own past experiences. But by staying the course and being agile, you can reap the economic success you’re seeking, and in the process gain confidence, appreciation for yourself and others, and other rewards impossible to measure.