Coronavirus crisis will break some businesses. But may be making of others

Covid 19

Many business owners and CEOs, as well as many leaders of organisations outside of the business world, know that periods of rapid growth have a way of bringing teams together.

Jon Goulding explains that when you’re flying high and signing new clients left and right, you can’t work hard enough, you can’t hire fast enough, you just can’t get things done fast enough. You’re facing up to a challenge—albeit in a positive context. You’re struggling, but you’re all struggling together. You all know what has to be done and you know there’s no room for delay. You all have a clear goal or purpose and you all know what that is.

Now, we’re all facing a different kind of challenge. The aim is not to grow without over-reaching, over-stretching or over-exposing yourself during a period of rapid development, but to survive in unprecedented and uncertain circumstances. Everywhere you look, businesses are bleeding revenue, clients or customers, furloughing staff and holding on tight in turbulent times. And there’s obviously a high risk of a fall in morale as a result. But this adversity can actually bond a team together like nothing else. Times of intense hardship create unity because there is often a very clear, instinctive goal and everyone knows what has to be done.

There is an irony to this. Towards the end of last year, it became clear that the preoccupation with ‘brand or company purpose’ had been the undoing of a lot of businesses. Rather than focus on their real purpose—in most cases, to provide a service or goods to help their customers solve a problem, which should be more than enough for any company to rally behind—brands had contrived seemingly higher and more noble reasons-to-be, giving rise to the phrase ‘woke-washing’. Some huge companies, such as Pepsi, were roundly condemned for appearing to take advantage of social trends as a PR exercise. And so by the start of this year the word had become toxic. No one was talking about ‘purpose’ anymore and was getting back to basics.

Now, all businesses and brands very much do have a purpose, and a clearly defined one. And though it isn’t so much an outward-facing purpose—this isn’t so much about your customers’ perspectives of your brand purpose as what you and your team see as your purpose internally—the point remains that what had become an almost meaningless buzzword has now become an undeniable reality of business life.

The purpose of businesses now is to survive and help every one of their customers through this incredibly difficult time—arguably it’s the most fundamental purpose any person, let alone any business, can have. And just as those brands who contrived purposes did so partly because they knew how it could bind a team together, the purpose that has been forced upon all businesses during the coronavirus crisis is bringing teams together, too. The language of war has been invoked often enough during this period, but here, wartime gives us an apt analogy. The horror of war has a unifying effect, not just within the armed forces but in entire societies.

There is a caveat to this. Without the right communication within teams, which is often down to the quality of the leadership, the adversity businesses are facing can simply become overwhelming. If negativity is expressed by or reflected in the senior leadership and is allowed to flow into the wider team, then the purpose that has the potential to bind that team will seem irrelevant because it will seem unattainable. Lethargy will creep in, and the team will perpetuate the negativity and so on. And then, at a time like this, it’s game over.

My suspicion, however, is that though this period will break many businesses, it will make some, too. And even within the businesses that don’t survive, the people will want to work with each other again. They will understand how it feels to work relentlessly for the people around them, their customers and not just for themselves. And within the business community, people will look back on this period and see it as a hinge moment in their professional evolution.

We should never ignore or forget the cold reality of what’s going on at this time—that there are people struggling and dying because of this virus. But regardless, we can acknowledge the potential for positive outcomes. We might just find when all this is over, that there is a unity in teams and among people, and that may even spread throughout wider society.