8 Steps to Thriving in a Downturn or Crisis

Thrive During a Downturn

By Jamie Cornehlsen

Although the ramifications of COVID-19 have changed our businesses and our immediate focus, there are actions we can take now to move forward and grow.

To help entrepreneurs establish a clear path, NextCorps held an interactive, virtual webinar on April 14, 2020, featuring three experts: Jamie Cornehlsen, Managing Director of Fitter Financials; Leo Linder, CEO of Emerge; and Virginia Smith, Buffalo and Rochester branch manager, U.S. Small Business Administration.

“We’re all experiencing daily challenges during the pandemic. I’ll admit that I’m tired of facing these every morning when I get online to work. But there are tools available that can help us to adapt, to enhance our focus on what’s most important, and to get ahead,” says Mike Riedlinger, Managing Director of Technology Commercialization at NextCorps and moderator of the webinar.

For years, Jamie Cornehlsen, Managing Director of Fitter Financials, has used tools like these to grow startups into million-dollar businesses. He is fully aware of what’s at stake. According to a recent Goldman Sachs survey of 1,500 small business owners, 75% of businesses say they will not be able to make it if the shutdown continues for three months, or until mid-June.

“You don’t need to be a statistic. You can be thriving in a downturn,” says Cornehlsen. “I’m having about seven conversations per day with CEOs. The good news is that everyone is in the same boat — we’re all trying to figure things out as we go. But, if we just do three things well, we can chart a path to continued company growth. Business owners must:

  1. Give really clear direction.
  2. Have a laser focus on what the company is doing.
  3. Regularly communicate how you’re feeling and ask others, such as employees, customers, or potential prospects, how they’re doing to foster empathy and deeper connection.”

According to Cornehlsen, situations like these often feel like we’re walking up an escalator that is going down. And, the main reasons why companies hit a ceiling in their ability to move forward is not really associated with crisis like COVID-19.

“Oftentimes, the first people you hire aren’t the ones that are the best for the job long term. Early on, startups have more operational and technology development needs and hire accordingly. But these individuals don’t easily flex into growth strategy related skills, such as identifying and selling to customers. When that happens, you’ll find employees reading a lot, going to conferences, etc. to find ideas for growth, but nothing seems to be working,” explains Cornehlsen.

To break through this, he points to the Entreprenuers Operating System EOS Model™ that can help company leaders chart an accountable course for action. The model focuses on six key areas:

  1. Vision — You need to be 100% clear on where you’re going.
  2. People — You need to have great people to have a great business. These individuals, if aligned to your values, can help you break through areas of frustration.
  3. Data — Good data will help you assess if your actions are aligned with your vision. When using data, be careful to look at data sets for greater insight. For example, not all revenue growth is positive for an organization. Cornehlsen shared a story about a manufacturer salesman who generated significant sales, yet didn’t uphold the company’s values. His behavior led to operational problems and overall low employee morale. Using good data, company management was able to develop a plan to replace his sales revenue and let the person go. Within six months, morale went way up, issues went down, and revenue grew back to target levels.
  4. Issues — Identify issues that interfere with your vision, and address them. Fighting through issues and documenting progress is a critical attribute to have. By sharing this, partners and investors will see that you have the strategic acumen AND the executional skills to overcome adversity.
  5. Process — Have eight to 10 solid processes that provide consistency in how you operate your business and deliver good service and quality products to customers.
  6. Traction — Get really deliberate about your execution and consistency to build in accountability with your team.

Creating a Solid Vision

Because of the webinar’s time limitations, Cornehlsen addressed the first area, vision, in greater detail with participants.

“So often we see a company’s vision in the form of a business plan. Once it’s done, it’s thrown into a drawer and never looked at again,” he said. “This is a big mistake.”

To help owners get really clear on their vision, the EOS methodology uses a Vision/Traction Organizer™, or eight questions that help leaders document their direction.

  1. What are your core values? How you determine your culture determines how you and your employees are behaving and showing up to the external world. Companies need to breathe their values daily. For those of you who don’t have these clearly defined, start by thinking about a person you admire. What are the traits and behaviors they have that you’d like to replicate? By documenting this, you can hire, train, evaluate, and fire people for how they align with these values and your team. If they’re not the right fit, they will pull or push you away from achieving your vision and goals.
  2. What is your core focus? This is called many things in business, for example, your purpose, cause, or passion. What do you do best that’s unique that if you did over and over again, you could stay energized and deliver it consistently to customers? As you grow, every so often go back and ask, “Is what we’re doing now aligned with our core focus?” Does it still light you up and feel like what you’re on this earth to do, and do better than anyone else? If you have this determined, then you have clear laser focus.
  3. What is your three-year plan? Define what you want to achieve — such as in revenue, profit, number of employees, etc. — and key measures that will signal if you’re on track. If you don’t have this documented, start by describing what you hope things will look like for your business by then.
  4. What is your 10-year plan? This is just looking further out from your three-year picture. Don’t be tempted to skip this. Cornehlsen finds that when owners set a specific goal for what they want to achieve and write it down, they become more accountable and capable of reaching it. Start by identifying what your number one goal is.
  5. What is your marketing strategy? Who is your target market? How can they be segmented into lists so that you can engage them in ways that resonate with what they need and care about? What are the three unique things that you offer them? These should be how their job and life is made easier with the use of your product/service and NOT about your product or service attributes. Finally, what is the proven process you’ll use to deliver consistently and the guarantee you’ll provide to ensure satisfied customers?
  6. What is your one-year plan? What are five to seven goals that you need to do this year to get you on track toward your three-year plan? What will you need to do each quarter to build the foundation (or rock) towards that goal and who is responsible for each activity?
  7. What is your three-month plan? What do you need to do in the next 90 days to achieve the rocks identified in the one-year plan? This helps you break down your planning into actionable and measurable chunks so that everyone on the team can be hyper-focused on what needs to be done.
  8. What are the issues that stand in the way of progress? What are the implications of what is happening now that’s impeding you from getting to the one-year plan?

Once entrepreneurs have answers to all areas, they can turn their attention to achieving traction. Cornehlsen counsels the best way to do this is to hold what he calls, “Level 10 Meetings.”

“People don’t like meetings when they lack an agenda or detail on what they’re supposed to be doing outside that meeting. To provide this structure and instill discipline, hold a 90-minute meeting that starts on the same day and time each week, begins and ends on time, and uses the same agenda that spells out what people need to work on and report their progress.”

The following format will  help you successfully move through each meeting:

0:00-05:00:      Share good news to uplift people and provide a smooth transition into the meeting.

05:00-10:00:   Review the scorecard to share with people how the company is doing against goals.

10:00-15:00:   Review rocks to align everyone on what will be done in the next 90 days to move the business forward. Identify if you’re on track or off track, and put issues on a separate list for a later discussion.

15:00-20:00:   Share customer and employee headlines — unexpected things that occurred that got in the way.

20:00-25:00:   Create a “to-do” list and assign tasks to each person. Start the discussion by checking to see if people completed their action from the week before. If not, add it to the “issue list.”

25:00-85:00:   Discuss issues by prioritizing the most important things to get to on the list, determine the underlying cause to see what’s really happening, and brainstorm and agree upon a solution. By getting to the root cause of issues, direction will become more focused. This will help you to create new or adjust actions on your “to-do” list, and develop any messages that need to be delivered to customers or employees.

85:00-90:00:   Ask participants to rate the meeting on a scale of 7-10. Did we follow the agenda clearly? If the score is a 7, ask how the meeting can be improved the next time.

These meetings will help you drive continuous growth at the organizational level in tandem with your efforts to drive revenue growth.

To learn how to augment this growth planning, read the second part of this blog series, A Playbook for Developing a Sales Culture with Leo Linder, CEO of Emerge, and view our podcast with Virginia Smith, U.S. Small Business Loan Assistance: April 6, 2020 to understand how to apply for assistance that is available during the pandemic.


About James “Jamie” Cornehlsen
Jamie is Founder and Managing Director of Fitter Financials, where he’s worked with more than 80 entrepreneurs across many industries to build a holistic system for rapid growth. He also is a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) at Capstone; a member of the Entrepreneurs Organization where he serves on the board as accelerator and membership chair; and, co-author of Conquering the Divide: How to Use Economic Indicators to Catch Stock Market Trends.

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