How businesses can navigate the coronavirus outbreak
By Mike Foti, Innovate Building Solutions
March 24, 2020 | 3:30 pm CDT
Warning – although this is ‘normally’ a remodeling blog – I sometimes choose to ‘go reflective’ on lessons life is teaching me. This post falls into this category.
If I’m being completely honest the word ‘pandemic’ wasn’t even in my vocabulary until a few weeks ago. Although my ‘fancy-schmancy’ business degrees from Carnegie-Mellon and Case Western Reserve equipped me to know all about ‘market penetration’ and ‘yields on coupon bonds,’ nowhere in my educational background prepared me to lead through a world-wide crisis like the Coronavirus which impacts everyone in its destructive path.

In my private moments as I think through how to lead my business, I’ve asked myself:

  • Is it right to keep my business open? Is it right to send installers and field sales reps out to do their jobs in customer’s (or prospects) homes? Is it right to have anyone in the office at all to keep our internal operations going?
  • Why couldn’t I have been as smart as Mark Cuban (or have the money of these big mega-corporations) where I could have funded an all-expenses paid time off for my staff? Then they could be safer through this storm.
  • How can I balance my team’s health and safety (and my customers also) against our need to make money to buy food or pay the rent or mortgage?
While questions like these bubble up fast and furious in my head, I’m also making time to reflect on what I’m learning working through the muddy water of leading a team through this crisis. Below I’d like to share five thoughts and reflections I’ve had during this challenging time.

Be calm and develop a plan

The crisis began to hit home for me on Friday March 13th (and isn’t that date ironic?). The challenges with this virus were starting to hit home for businesses in my state of Ohio. I was surprised while rushing out to an appointment that Sean (our Operations Manager) pulled up to my half-hastily loaded SUV and asked, “Mike, so what are we going to do about this virus and our business?” I thought to myself, I really don’t know, but had better get a plan together soon.
Sean had legitimate questions. He (and the rest of the team) deserved answers. I wish I had profound answers up my sleeve, but I did not. However, panicking wouldn’t help. At a time like this I needed a thoughtful plan.

Be open to influence and ideas from those you trust

Only a fool believes (in their infinite wisdom) they have all the answers (and the perfect plan). And Lord knows (and so does my work and home families) I can be a stubborn guy. I can think I’ve got it all figured out. However, many times I ‘succumb’ to more reasonable (and thoughtful) ‘voices.’
For example, in the earlier stages as the virus was unfolding, my wife Rose (the very pretty and waaay smarter than I …yes, I married up) convinced me it wasn’t smart to take a plane to Austin Texas for a Cabinet and Closet Industry Convention. I was excited to learn more about home organization systems and ‘hob-knob’ with the best and brightest in this industry.
Rose influenced me to cancel the trip (understanding I could spread this disease to my 92-year-old Mother in Law in memory care or members of my family or work team is what shifted my stubbornness to go to the show). Two days later the event planner cancelled the convention anyway.
During this time Rob, my V.P. of Operations urged us to not do face to face interviews for an Office Administrative position we need to fill in Columbus Ohio. After discussions with our ‘mini-recruiting team’ (Georgia my Accounting Manager and Michelle our Marketing Manager) we took this advice. We are only phone interviewing at this point.
On Monday March 16th I knew I needed to call an emergency meeting with our Cleveland and Columbus locations to outline a plan to keep the team (and our customers) safe. So, I did what I always do. While running in my basement at 4:00 AM I began to read and learn (and scribble down on a white legal pad) what others were doing and develop a plan which fit our business.
Then at 7:15 AM I rounded up the top leaders of my business (Rob – our VP of Operations, Georgia – our Accounting Manager and Michelle of Marketing Manager) to plan for the 7:45 meeting with our teams to share the list and ideas. I asked them what we should be doing. They rattled off a list of ideas – many I HADN’T EVEN THOUGHT ABOUT.
It’s through the understanding that ‘all of us is better than one of us’ we delivered a better response than I could have crafted alone. The bottom line is this leadership journey is difficult. I need to be open to influence and ideas from those I trust to make better decisions.

Don’t be obsessed with the news

The news of death tolls and infections is depressing. It can make anyone feel ill obsessing over bad news night and day. You feel a sense of panic. You want to hole yourself up with a mile-high mound of toilet paper! For some reason I can’t understand how toilet paper is soothing to many in times like this.
Since the news is everywhere today, it can be impossible to decompress and enjoy today (which is the only day you and I are ‘guaranteed’ anyway). So, here’s the challenge. No matter how bad it seems, take time to embrace The Precious Present (note – this also the name of a little book with a powerful message).
After another long, headache-filled, day at the office through this crisis (and trying to sell jobs and keep things moving), I needed to decompress. I turned off the news and, on the ride, home I listened to sports talk radio. I enjoyed learning how my Cleveland Browns picked up a new right tackle in Jake Conklin and a new tight end in Austin Hooper.
I don’t have to have a sex change operation and become ‘Poly-Anna’ (whoever she is) to know it’s important for ‘hope to spring eternal.’ Even though the coronavirus is terrible and being a long-suffering (wait-until-next-year) Cleveland Browns fan hasn’t exactly been a ‘football-picnic,’ I need to decompress to stay in the right frame of mind. I can’t be surrounded by bad news 24-7. Do something fun. Laugh a little. Enjoy a rerun of a football game. Relax your mind.

Tell me something good, tell me, tell me, tell me

You can take the guy out of the ‘funk-lovin’ late 70’s (me in this case) but you can’t the ‘funk’ still rollin’ around in my head for guiding my thinking on some days. After Monday March 16th headache of a leadership day I came into my office on Tuesday and went up to Terry McGuire (no, not Jerry McGuire – although she is heavily involved with sales and I DO hope she’ll show our business the money!) a Nationwide Sales Rep and Office Administrator in our office.
I said to Terry (in the infamous words of the funk band Rufus and Chaka Khan) to ‘tell me something good.’
I told Terry – something good was going to happen today. I could feel it. And lo and behold it did. Terry closed a nice $5,000 job she’s been working on for months.
Here’s what I believe, in the face of adversity we as leaders must search (no matter how hard it is to do) for the silver lining. Doom and gloom won’t get it done. Be the light we all need, even when darkness is all around.

Be open, honest and appreciative along the way

While running at 3:30 AM on the morning of Friday March 20th something was gnawing at me. I felt we needed to do more to ensure the safety of our team and customers. So – while exercising in my basement (yes – I’m doing that again!) I typed an email to my top leadership team calling a quick meeting to get their ideas of additional safety measures. I thought a ‘few tweaks will do us good. And, unfortunately, a few short hours later at 6:30 AM (in the middle of my 2-hour drive to my Columbus office), another shoe dropped….
Ron, my business partner from a New Jersey business called. He informed me the State of Pennsylvania shut down all ‘non-essential businesses.’ This was the ‘shoe to drop’ I was dreading. While my company isn’t in PA, and we don’t have any key vendors in PA, I could feel the ‘noose tightening’ on our business. I wasn’t sure how long we’d be allowed to go on.
I needed to think through the ‘Armageddon’ contingency if we’re immediately forced to shut down. What would our business look like? What could we do? Could we still wholesale (or take orders) nationally even if our local installation business is shuttered? What implications would this have on each person’s job?
So, in the space of 4 ½ hours I lead a meeting to not only discuss short term safety changes we would put into force immediately, but also our response if (or when) the state of Ohio (or other states with key manufacturers who supply us are located in) would shut all (‘non-essential’) businesses down.
My goal in this meeting was simple. Be open. Be honest. Show love. Show compassion. Show the appreciation my team deserves.
As my Dad said to me as a young 25-year-old businessman, “Michael, you’re going to be tested. It’s not a matter of IF, it’s a matter of WHEN.”  Well – here was another instance my ‘WHEN’ had arrived. I would do my best to ‘show up’ in this moment of trial with all the thoughtfulness, honesty and heart I could muster.

A final thought

If the coronavirus has proved one thing (yet again), it’s that we’re all in this thing called life together. We are beautifully interdependent on the talents, love, compassion and sacrifice (can you say health care workers and first-responders today) of our fellow human beings. God designed it to be this way.
So, with this I’d like to extend you a ‘socially-distant,’ 6-feet away virtual hug during this trying and confusing time.
I wish you and your family (and my team and my family) the health and safety we all deserve.
I’m looking forward to the day WE WILL see this curve as flat as a chocolate chip pancake with gobs of syrup on top. Now, that’s a world I’d like to be livin’ in RIGHT NOW!
If you want to contact me to talk about this article (or need some remodeling advice – after all I should also be doing my day-job) you can reach me at Innovate Building Solutions at 888-467-7488 or at our Cleveland office at 216-658-1280 or at our Columbus office at 614-565-5888.

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