How to thrive in tough times

Six months on from when our annual conference was originally due to take place, the weather might have changed significantly (remember the snow blizzards that hit on the 9th of March?) but many of the challenges that businesses of all sizes face have, sadly, not.

While we might not be in a recession, many businesses are finding it tough. And that should come as no surprise. It has been this way for some time now. Cast your mind back over recent years and it’s hard to remember a time when there hasn’t been economic, political and social uncertainty – with businesses having to first weather the impact of Brexit, followed in short order by the Covid-19 pandemic, rising energy prices and the cost-of-living crisis.

But for all the doom and gloom that exists, there are, thankfully, plenty of examples of businesses in Yorkshire and beyond that have thrived during these challenging times. Which begs the obvious questions: how have they done it and what can other businesses learn from their approach?

These were the questions we sought to address at this year’s annual conference – Thriving in Tough Times – which took place last week at Leeds Arena’s Black and White Executive Lounge.

We’d brought together a top panel of experts who know a thing or two about successfully steering businesses through tough times – and it’s fair to say they didn’t disappoint.

Clare Boardman, the senior MD of CEO advisory firm Teneo; Darren Forshaw, co-founder and partner of private equity firm Endless LLP; Louise Vaughan, co-founder and chief client officer of Definition Group and Hayley Erner, business advisor and coach, were engaging and fascinating company.  

They offered a multitude of brilliant insights into how leaders can ensure their business is best placed to succeed through these testing times. Here’s three that stood out for us.

Regularly stress-test your business

Permacrisis – a word describing the feeling of living through a period of war, inflation and political instability – was chosen as Collins Dictionary’s word of the year for 2022, and if events so far this year are anything to go by, it has a pretty good chance of doing the double.

About the only certainty we have at this moment in time is that things are likely to remain uncertain for some time to come yet. For how long is anyone’s guess – though it was noticeable how many of the audience were nodding in agreement when panellist Darren Forshaw shared that he doesn’t believe we’ll see the stability we’re all looking for until after the next general election, which if the Westminster rumour mill is to be believed is likely to take place in November 2024.

Clare made the important point that, with so much out of their control, business leaders should focus on what they can control and influence – chiefly, how well placed their business is to overcome potential challenges and take advantage of future opportunities.

While stress testing – the process used to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses in businesses, in order that these can be addressed to make them more resilient – will be familiar to many, Clare revealed that there are still an awful lot of businesses out there that don’t fully understand where their sensitivities lie – and that’s a dangerous position for any organisation to be in.

Having the right structure in place is critical to business success and Louise from Definition Group highlighted how she and the team regularly review this to ensure they’re best placed to mitigate any potential threats and take advantage of new opportunities. The potential of AI to revolutionise the way that businesses operate and deliver services is huge, and Louise shared how, recognising the significant opportunity to their business and the partners they work with, Definition Group has put a dedicated person in place to explore how they can best harness this new technology.

Create the right culture and mindset

Creating the right culture in a business is not just a nice-to-have, it’s critical to business success, impacting everything from employee satisfaction and productivity to attracting and retaining talent, innovation and long-term profitability. But it’s not easy to get right. If it was, every business would do it.

Ensuring your people have the right mindset is a good place to start, according to Hayley. She saw many business leaders struggle during the Covid-19 pandemic and, two years on, many are still battling with the after-effects. Getting your head into the right space is half the battle – with Hayley citing the example of how top teams in the world of sport have been quick to recognise the benefits of investing in psychologists to ensure players are in the right frame of mind to succeed. Too many business leaders are still reticent to seek support and help for themselves and their teams – but those that do quickly realise the benefits.

Where people work from plays a significant role in shaping a company’s culture and while the panel very much supported flexible working, all noted the importance of employees physically coming together in an office environment on a regular basis. Hayley flagged how teams can risk losing a sense of connectivity if there’s too much remote working, while both Darren and Louise noted how employees, junior colleagues in particular, often learn by osmosis from others around them – something they simply can’t do if they’re working remotely.

Don’t miss the opportunities

During difficult times, when you’re deeply focused on a specific task or goal, it’s easy to become tunnel-visioned and not notice what’s happening in your periphery. That’s often when you miss the best opportunities. Yes, challenging times bring about adversity and difficulties, but they can also create openings for innovation, problem solving and professional growth. It’s about keeping your head up and your eyes out for such opportunities.

Take the retail sector, which has suffered more than most in recent years. On the face of it, you might think that there’s little opportunity in the sector at this moment in time. But there are some green shoots. Clare highlighted how, in this post-covid era, the once-prevalent 30-year lease on high street properties is all but dead. Instead, much shorter five-year leases are now becoming the norm, representing a significant shift in the commercial real estate market. Consequently, many retailers who previously would never have considered having a high-street presence are being encouraged to have a go, breathing new life and energy into commercial centres across the UK.

A roadmap to business success

In conclusion, uncertainty and instability have become constants in the world of business in recent years and it doesn’t look like either will, sadly, disappear any time soon. The good news is that there’s lots that you can do to prepare for the most obvious challenges and ensure that you’re ready to seize any opportunities that come your way.

People lie at the heart of any successful business and looking after them to ensure they’re best placed to thrive will really help to drive your business forward. Having the right mindset is key too. As the old saying goes, ‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade’. Here’s to plenty more ‘lemonade’ being crafted in the region over the next year!