One of the most exciting (and terrifying) times of my career was living through the collapse of TXU and its subsequent acquisition by E.ON in October 2002. Everyone I know who was part of either business at that time has stories to tell of the extraordinary way that people adapted incredibly quickly to a world where all business norms were thrown out of the window and new ways of doing things had to be made up on the hoof. The collapse happened very quickly, and sent shock waves through the market, but what I remember most was the exceptional way that everyone focused, worked together and achieved extraordinary outcomes in an incredibly short space of time. Massive decisions had to be made in hours not weeks or months, and the consequences of those decisions were huge. Team spirit was exceptional.
There are many parallels to be drawn with this and what the market is going through now.
So what lessons can be learned from that experience to apply to today's crisis?
1) Creativity: Solving new, unexpected problems requires quick thinking, brave decisions and fast action- you must trust your best people to take ownership and lead. In this scenario, the best people are not necessarily those with the highest seniority, most experience or required 'job title'. Going back to the TXU example, many of us found ourselves in new roles which bore no resemblance to the day job- but we were trusted 100% to deliver. Personally I found myself (literally) locked in a small room with one other individual and we were responsible for prioritising and approving every single payment that left the business- no questions asked. This was a huge deal- neither of us were particularly senior at the time, but trusted above others to do the job well.
2) Communication: Most people can talk faster than they can write, nuances in speech are not caught in written word. Pick up the phone to get stuff done quickly. It is critical to communicate effectively and with as little bureaucracy as possible. If it's not perfect, the post mortem can be done afterwards, but for now focus on making things happen effectively. The difference between today and 2002 is that communications are now so much easier, but even then we had a daily update from the CEO which was a recorded message that we could dial into. He was an absolute star and often recorded the message in the small hours, but never failed to do it throughout the crisis. Hearing him talk was a lot more reassuring than receiving an email.
3) Co-operation: This is not the time to worry about winning or how things are done- it is about survival. Survival will depend on having conversations that you don't usually have, cutting through bureaucracy and working with others in ways that are not 'normal'. Problems can be solved through cross industry co-operation and not by sticking to standard protocol and channels.
More than anything else, it is a time to focus exclusively on customers, employees and cash. Everything else is second order and needs to be pushed into the long grass. Growth, taking advantage of low market prices, marketing initiatives etc are all, right now, 'nice to have' not 'must have'. If you focus only on customers, employees and cash, you'll be in a fit state, when we get through this, to accelerate back into competition with the foundations secure.
Extraordinary times need extraordinary responses and when we're out the other side, there will be huge learnings, strengths and new ways of doing things that result from this difficult time. We will all talk about what we learned about each other- and how what we learned made us, and business, better.
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