Lessons Learned on a Road to Recovery

Emerging stronger post COVID-19

A catastrophic event occurs, causing lives to be lost and businesses to be disrupted. Wall Street seizes, stutters, and then starts to recover. Personal security and safety controls take priority over commerce and economic considerations. Stores, restaurants and services are shuttered for a length of time. Customer traffic disappears and is slow to return. Most employees, many furloughed, are dealing with significant anxiety and uncertainty. Many people lose jobs. New safety policies and procedures are implemented, often times updated on the fly, as new information becomes available. Businesses re-open without a tested game-plan and are on their own to determine the best path forward.  

While that may sound like a summary of the Coronavirus pandemic’s impact on our lives thus far, it is actually a brief description of what happened after September 11, 2001. That day, as part of a senior management team responsible for operations within the airline concession industry, I became one of many leaders turned learners, forced to navigate a dramatic transformation. Some of our shared stories are illustrated here; lessons learned during 9/11 that can be applied to the retail and food service industries doing business during COVID-19.  

Employee Safety is The Top Priority

Employees who feel safe in their workplace and trust their leadership have the bandwidth to engage more fully in recovery efforts. They worry less and think more. By prioritizing employees’ safety during a time of crisis, leaders set a strong example for their management teams and clearly demonstrate the importance of the individuals to the organization.  

Communication and Transparency Are Key to Bridging The Fear and Uncertainty That Can Quickly Grow In The Workplace  

It is important to remember that, during the chaos of the day, the team in the field is the  face of the organization to its customers. Field staff that are connected and secure in their knowledge of the organization’s initiatives and objectives present a much more positive experience for customers than those that are dealing with job insecurity and anxiety. By prioritizing a steady communication of information to front-line staff, the stage is set for enhancing positive customer interaction at a time when it is needed most.  

In the rush to solve problems, direct communication with field managers can fall to the bottom of to-do lists. However, frequent communication, especially video or tele-conferences, speeds recovery in multiple ways. It creates a greater sense of community in organizations as distant teams of field managers and decision makers come together to share information. As information, skills, and experience are shared, connected teams collaborate to make quick and effective decisions that forward the organization. The recovery impact is even greater and the benefits more immediate if the communication forum is one that values learning, honest feedback, and open discussion.  

Recovery Speed Depends on The Quality of Local Management Teams  

Local management teams can speed up recovery exponentially or slow it to a snail’s pace. Concessionaires that invested in experienced, skilled General Managers and trained them well had a distinct advantage in their recovery efforts. These GM’s can utilize deep networks and strong relationships with staff and suppliers to nimbly overcome hurdles and successfully adapt to their new environment. They know their businesses, their communities, and their customers and can quickly and effectively implement new procedures. They are leaders that decision makers want to hear from and know to trust.  

Consider re-evaluating local management teams through the lens of what your organization needs right now. Where a weakness exists, shore it up with additional training, corporate resources, or mentoring from their strongest peers. Investment in field management will show a strong return. Every time a customer enters an establishment, they are gauging a company’s values and responsiveness during this pandemic. Strong local managers with the resources they need create positive experiences that enhance the company’s brand and build long-term, meaningful connections with their customers.  

Seize The Opportunities Created by These Challenges  

Recognizing and capitalizing on new opportunities in a dramatically changing industry is  difficult but necessary for successful recovery. Focusing the entire organization on opportunities rather than problems shifts perspective and enables empowerment in a situation typically defined by a loss of control.   

One such example from 9/11 illustrates this best. The month before the attacks, the single highest passenger traffic in one month was recorded with over 65 million travelers. It would take almost three years, not until July 2004, to reach that level again. Some companies saw that as a problem to overcome and a cause for complaint. Others recognized this as an opportunity; talented managers and staff had some time on their hands once operations stabilized.  

How could this be used as an opportunity to benefit the organization? Consider field-initiated projects and contributions to recovery efforts. Staff could be tasked to collaborate locally or within departments and provide ideas to improve performance, based not only on the new economic reality but also on pain points or missed opportunities prior to the pandemic. Teams, including both field and corporate support members, could be established to produce recommendations and spearhead initiatives that can be executed quickly, including operational process improvements, human capital optimization, merchandise assortment or menu changes, and supply chain efficiencies.  

Executing on those plans could became a path forward through uncertainty as employees work together to create improved organizations. The results could be dramatically improved products, processes and services that lead to strong financial performance as KPIs increase along with passenger traffic. Tasking staff with value-added activity, beyond deep cleaning, re-stocking, and re-organizing, can increase their sense of value in the organization and focus everyone on forwarding the company to a brighter future rather than on their own uncertainty and fear.  

Your Greatest Asset

The overriding theme of the lessons we learned during 9/11 is clear; people are our greatest resource. Protect them, enable them with information and resources, and provide them with a positive focus for their energy. Don’t let them fall to a lower priority while restructuring debt, negotiating rent relief, and arranging government assistance. Unleashing the power of the workforce is the lynchpin to speeding recovery and emerging stronger from these uncertain times.