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I’m going to confess something that is certainly going to get me into trouble.

Last year, on an early Dunedin morning, after my eldest son’s graduation, I had to rush straight to Christchurch Airport. Before the crack of dawn, and with my other two young adult children in the car, I drove slowly out of Dunedin, but also with a sense of urgency to catch my plane. My husband had warned me multiple times about the notorious black Otago ice.

Now, I’d never experienced serious black ice before. It was something my ego told me I could handle – until it hit. No warning, suddenly I realised I had no control over the direction of my wheels. My entire body was wrenched into extreme panic as I instinctively attempted to drive out of the slide. The miniscule amount of reason I had left reminded me that using my brake was a waste of time.

I did manage to drive out, but the skate was long, wild, and lay us open to all oncoming traffic for a shocking time. As I eventually and, by then gently, slid to the verge, I attempted to congratulate myself for keeping my cool – while my son had to help me release my white-knuckled hand grip on the wheel.

The whole experience was terrifying, and it took days for my heart rate to stabilise. In the moment, I was faced with an emergency and while it’s hard for me to admit, my slide was less art and more over-correction. My over-correction quite possibly put my dear children in harms way longer than necessary. I had freaked out. We were lucky no traffic was coming the other way.

Fear does that. When we are faced with an emergency, those of us who are driven by emotions, instinct, and perhaps less practiced rationality and skill tend to over-correct … which is the impulse behind the current toilet paper stockpiling and fear-mongering response to covid-19. The problem with mindless fear-based instinct is that it only works if we are running away from something. We can’t outrun a recession.

The covid-19 situation requires an emphasis on hope, a daily belief that this will pass and the issues at hand remain building a strong long-term business. As a leader in your business you must be a hope-based leader; a leader who makes hopeful short-term and long-term decisions. Do not freak-out and over-correct. Do not put yourself and your team in even more danger over a longer period.

Without being a fool in the current moment, stay focused on where you want your team and your business to be in 12 months’ time. Weather the moment and continue to have faith in solid business principles, and in the worth of kindness towards everyone in your business community. Be an optimist. Be the opposite to the fear-mongers who are pulling all their money out of the market and fearing Armageddon. Wisely invest more of your time and money – get prepared for the upturn! We may have more of a downturn to come yet, but an upturn is inevitable, and it WILL come – be ready. Downturns are often the only time you have a solid opportunity to prepare for a mad season. The tourists will come back to Rotorua, next year –scoring a carpark in Queenstown will become impossible again.

Remove fear from your workplace, and don’t let short-term problems undermine your work on long-term solutions. If you swerve wildly around you will create fear. Members of your team need to have their fear softened – by you.

This is what hope-based leaders do:

  1. Hope-based leaders courageously face the immediate threat without freaking out. Focus on tasks that can be controlled, but don’t do it alone. Be completely transparent with your team about the nature of the threat. Discuss possible short-term and long-term threats and face those threats together; from the most immediate and dangerous, to the less so. Stress and muddle-headedness are inevitable, so all tasks should be listed and ordered to ensure direction. Stay positive and task focused.

  2. Have the cash-flow position openly displayed. Everyone on your team needs to understand what is at stake in a crisis and then how to grow out of a recession. The journey is how to weather a recession and prepare for a boom – that is what hope-based leadership is all about. Imagine the inevitable professional development by this time next year!

  3. Protect as many jobs as you can. Go hard with your applications for every cent the Government subsidies can provide. Don’t get hung up on the narrow definitions of evidence for loss. Document your loss and prove it. Fight for the right support. Keep your team busy by re-directing their energy towards helping you build the business. If you don’t have documented systems or cloud-based operational instructions, now is the time! If you don’t have outstanding cost-of-goods management, now is the time! If you don’t have excellent financial systems, now is the time! Get everyone working on business tasks. Whoever has the most business savvy team by summer will dominate.

  4. Forget fear, get even. When things are quiet, systematically fix every inefficiency in the business. You may not have much money over the coming months, but the trade-off may be time. Use it with hope. Use your time bravely. Dare to be successful during this year of ALL years. Re-strategise, and action your plans. When the environmental and political context is changing daily; use timeless business truisms to steer your way out of the slide. Don’t over-correct, be as solid as you can.

  5. Stay connected. Improve your business connections with others in the industry. Talk more with those who are facing the same challenges. Support and praise your competition! When you have a problem, or are not sure, seek advice. Now is not the time to live in a cave, even if/when social distancing becomes a practical reality.

Let us be calm. Let us be wise. Let us be rational. Black ice may be beneath us right now; but this is the time to steer with skill not by wildly over-correcting in a panic.

A deliberate decision to be hope-based and task focussed may be the one thing that keeps us from crashing – and let’s face it, we have no other choice.

March 18, Alexis O’Connell @ The Hospitality Company