If there’s one word that could sum up how business leaders are feeling about this year it would have to be “uncertainty.” Business leaders are looking at a landscape with tremendous risk, including inflation, cybersecurity, shifting geopolitical dynamics and the looming threat of recession. But each new challenge also presents an opportunity for growth, with the right perspective and willingness to be flexible.
As CEOs, we prepare our businesses to be both resilient and nimble; however, navigating an unexpected crisis will test your leadership and require difficult calls. My own company, MetTel, which was founded in 1996, has not been immune to macro and micro changes over the last three decades, but ultimately, it’s these challenges that define companies and their leaders. Through my tenure I’ve learned time and again that when disaster strikes, we need to focus on what we can control and look for opportunities the challenge presents.
Threats to your business can come out of nowhere or they can be events you might be able to spot on the horizon – and sometimes they’re a confluence of both. On 9/11, MetTel was located just steps from the twin towers and was already dealing with the fallout from the dotcom bubble bursting. It was a trying time for our business and for us personally as New Yorkers. But in the market panic we saw an opportunity to expand, by seizing on the cut-rate prices on infrastructure created by the down market, inheriting customers of defunct telecoms and expanding our network nationwide.
On the heels of this expansion, in 2004 courts struck down a central tenet of the 1996 US Telecommunications Act that obligated carriers to provide wholesale network access to competitors like MetTel. This was the death knell for many players in our space, as it exposed providers who competed solely on rates to unmanageable rate fluctuation. We could not control rates, but we could control how we competed, so we chose to expand our service offering and focus exclusively on business and government customers, where MetTel could add value such as business process improvement and innovation beyond simple cost savings. Taking this long-term view was financially difficult, but by redirecting our efforts away from an “easy” but dwindling resource, we rebuilt our model around becoming a partner to our clients and at the same time we rebuilt our vendor relationships as a valued customer, rather than a regulatory adversary.
Not all existential threats are damaging to your business; some are simply opportunities, but to appreciate them, you have to step back and think about the landscape outside of your own business. For example, when potential customers were focused on their finances shortly after the 2008 financial crisis, they opened their doors to a new entrant like MetTel that could lower their costs and simplify their business processes. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy flooded many of the major IT infrastructure facilities in New York City, bringing telecommunications to a grinding halt for weeks. While it was a difficult period for the entire industry, the disaster led us to focus on increasing network resiliency and offering products that provide fallback options when nature cannot be controlled. As a result, we worked with our partners to help pioneer resilient and versatile products like SD-WAN with redundant access paths including microwave, wireless and satellites. Today we even hold a contract to provide service to FEMA.
Most recently, the Covid pandemic tested every business’ best-laid plans. Fear was everywhere, especially in the early days, and while we struggled with the invisible threat, we saw an opportunity to demonstrate the power of our newfound resiliency: assuring customers that their service would be uninterrupted, helping them pivot to a work from home model, and filling any gaps they had due to illness, departures or technology needs. We became nearly indistinguishable from other business units within their organizations, even supplementing the efforts of competitors who shared client accounts. MetTel emerged from the pandemic with a deep reservoir of good will, and customers who knew they had a partner they could trust.
Crises and downturns come in many different flavors but there are principles CEOs can adopt that can help them weather whatever comes their way:
• Brace yourself for the shockwave. Make sure that your organization has the resiliency to withstand sudden shifts or shocks. Ensure your IT infrastructure is positioned to flex so your teams can stay connected, have contingency plans in place for the threats you can anticipate, and workarounds for those you cannot. Today that means digital transformation through technologies like cloud computing, SD-WAN and network redundancy.
• Prepare to pivot to opportunity. Challenges of all kinds are difficult to handle, but organizations that are willing to pivot can find long-term growth opportunities during even the toughest times. Sometimes this means excising a profitable venture that does not fit into your long-term plan.
• Find ways to support your customers through crisis. Stress levels are high in times of crisis. Clients are concerned about continuity of services, and unexpected issues compound their anxiety. Be ready to reassure them and find ways to extend your efforts to cover areas beyond your current mission. This will distinguish you from any other vendors your client has onboard. Developing a capability that others can rely on in crises makes your services indispensable.
• Balance your ecosystem. In good times, building your own technology from the ground up can pay off, particularly for core elements of your business. During challenging times, however, finding the best technology or business in the market lowers the cost barriers and brings quicker returns than developing those capabilities yourself, especially for functions that merely support or add features to your business model. Building an ecosystem of strategic partnerships can be a reliable, cost-effective and low-risk vehicle to open new markets for your business and new areas of growth.
• Future-proof your business. Any existential crisis can permanently alter the way you or your industry does business. It’s crucial that organizations recognize in real-time how their business environments are changing and consequently, build on flexible platforms. Integrated assets and outsourced managed services can preserve the value of previous investments and avoid a complete overhaul every few months when the next market disruptor emerges.
While there are several keys to managing through uncertain times, perhaps the most important is to be a reliable partner for your clients. The next time disaster strikes, take a moment in the chaos to think about what your customers are going through and how you can be there for them in their time of need. Anticipating their concerns and challenges and going the extra mile to solve them will earn the trust and loyalty of your clients and the preeminence of your brand.
We can learn something from every crisis, and with determination, flexibility and vision, challenges can lead to transformation and sustained long-term growth.