We Nearly Lost Everything, but Not Our Best Employees

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

You can only get by on your own for so long because in order to grow your business you need to develop a great team that you can rely on and trust. People with valuable skills that contribute to the company quickly become assets that you want to keep on your team, but if you find someone valuable, chances are other employers will see that as well.

Along with a team of great people comes a new set of interpersonal tasks. Unless your employees sense their worth and believe in the company and its mission, they are likely to pursue other options. Even when times are hard, investing in these relationships is critical if you hope to not only survive the inevitable storms that come your way, but come out of them on top. When our business faced once-in-a-generation headwinds, our very survival was in question; and as a public company, those challenges were visible for all the world to see, including our employees. In times like these, leadership means everything, and a passive approach to managing your people simply isn’t a viable option. The more challenging times are for your company, the more critical good leadership becomes. Here are some tactics we employed that can help you manage any size team through challenging times.

Stay positive

Before Likewise, I was operating in the real estate software space and business was booming. But those heady days came to an abrupt end when the global financial system imploded and the real estate market tanked. Real estate transactions slowed dramatically and in some areas nearly stopped completely. That’s not a good recipe for success when your customers’ incomes are based solely on commission. Suddenly, even many of our best customers couldn’t pay their bills. Some of our best sales and customer service people were asking me and other leaders what to do when customers who had been passionate advocates for the company were saying things like, “I really want to stick with you, but it’s this or my car.” 

Needless to say, these were tough times for us, and tough times for our people. We had to reduce our cost structure — which meant layoffs. In those situations, you can spin the story all you like, but you are much better off leading with the truth. You need to be upfront with people and own the challenges ahead. First and foremost you need to be authentic, while, of course, also stressing the positives. 

Keep them believing

The layoffs were brutal. We were a startup that grew from nothing. We had the feel of a family. And when you need to make those types of large cuts, if you do them right, the people that remain are your A-players — the people you need on the team. But there was a problem, one that made an already challenging situation far more difficult. While our customers were all in the real estate business, we were a tech company located in Seattle, an area with a very strong economy that recovered from the economic disruption very quickly. So our people — software engineers, designers, product managers, etc. had many options at other tech companies. Companies that were unaffected by the prolonged real estate downturn and had only experienced a scary, but relatively short-lived, disruption. We, on the other hand, were still in the eye of the storm of what everyone knew would be a prolonged, industry-wide downturn. We lost some good people during that time, and it was hard to fault them for their career choices. Times were tough, their futures unsure and they had plenty of other good options at other technology companies.  

Related: 10 Biggest Challenges Small Business Owners Face Right Now

Make things personal

But we didn’t lose everyone — far from it. In fact, we kept most of our best people during those times. We fought hard to keep them, we articulated a vision for a better future, and we looked for opportunities to make it real and pound it home every which way we could. Those opportunities don’t just create themselves though, you need to seek them out. You often need to manufacture them.

For instance, we looked to the things we still had going for us. We painted a vision of how the industry would look at the end of the tunnel and why we were positioning ourselves to be very successful when those days came. But we also worked to make things personal. We stopped talking about our customers as businesses and started talking about them as people. We found successful customers and brought them to our offices to talk at employee meetings. You want to fire up your employees — try putting a single Mom in front of them that tearfully talks about how your products turned their business around and enabled her to send her kids to private school. Have your sales and service people seek out great stories and then create forums for them to post them to the whole company. Make things real, make them positive, make them personal!

Related: Why Employee Retention Is More Important Than Ever Before in the …

Keep it real

Most importantly though, you need to be authentic. People aren’t stupid — your best people certainly better not be. Lead with the truth.  Surprise them by talking about the challenges right upfront, but then talk about how you are taking them head-on, while always coming back to your vision and how you are going to achieve it. Give them something to believe in and something they want to be a part of! Very challenging times are, well, very challenging. You are likely to take more punches than you are going to give and you are going to lose some battles. Some will really hurt. But if you keep your people believing, make it personal for them and keep things real, then you can weather the toughest of times and create a successful outcome for you, your company and your entire team.

Related: Improve Employee Retention By Taking a People-First Approach

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