Breakfast doesn’t seem like much, but for April Fawcett Nagel, eliminating the free daily meal after providing it for employees was a tough decision. Despite how hard that decision was to make, it was just one small thing she had to do in order for firstPRO Inc. to move forward during the downturn.
“It’s just battling through the current economic challenges and the business model and adapting my business to keep it profitable and to keep everyone motivated and to weather the storm, the slowdowns, the peaks and valleys,” she says.
As founder and CEO of the executive staffing firm, she says you just have to have smart business sense and communicate more with your employees during this time. And she should know because she’s seen downturns before, yet has still seen success, having hit $34.6 million in 2008 revenue and landing a spot on the 2009 Inc. 5,000 list.
Smart Business spoke with Fawcett Nagel about how to effectively lead during a down economy.
Have a backup plan. It’s part of owning a business. If you don’t always have those rainy day plans and you’re not constantly evaluating the big picture and where your business is going to go as things change, [that’s a problem.] It’s not just economic changes but also the technology changes. The way we do business today versus the way we did it even as short as 10 years ago is so different from a technology standpoint. I’ve always felt strongly about keeping things timely and adapting as we go.
Nobody’s happy when the economy has a downturn or when you experience some new technological wave that your employees and you know it’s going to be a necessary part of your business, and you have to invest in whatever it is and implement it into your organization, which is time-consuming and costly. You’re never happy about those things, but when you look back and they are all said and done, it always makes our company stronger and makes all of us better businesspeople.
Communicate. In a bad economy, anything any employee is going home and wondering about or worried about is usually probably a lot worse than it actually is in reality. I’m for very open dialogue and being honest and saying, ‘This is what we’re facing, this is how we’re going to deal with it, [and] these are some of the changes we have to make to protect all of us as a whole.’ Everybody is well-versed long before the changes start.
Most of these people are fairly savvy. We’re business-to-business in our selling, and they know what a lot of their clients are up against. You have to talk. You have to tell people so they’re not going home assuming something much worse. Nobody can be productive if they’re worried about getting laid off or getting fired or losing their insurance or any of those kinds of issues.
Ninety percent of it is doing it, [yet] so many people don’t. Ninety percent of successfully doing it is actually having the conversation, having the communication, and after that, I think being honest and being specific and talking about the good and talking about the bad and maybe citing worst-case scenarios, forewarning them about some changes that may have to happen down the road if things don’t change or if things get any worse.
Have flexible people. We’ve either hired or cultivated people who have an understanding of business. Part of our corporate culture and our mission statement is all about having the pride and respect for this business as if it were their own.
Look for people who are asking the right questions in the interview process, who ask what-if questions or they ask specifics, and the details of the job aren’t as relevant to them as the opportunities and the mindset and the culture of the job. Look for people who have a level of ambition, who aren’t going to be satisfied doing the same thing for years and years.
I want somebody who needs to be challenged and wants to make more next year than they did this year and wants a great opportunity and wants to work in an entrepreneurial environment. We’re a bobbing and weaving company because we are privately held and we are entrepreneurial in nature. I spell all of that out in an interview, and I give them all kinds of examples and [ask], ‘How would you feel if this happened and this happened.’ Based on their answers and their interest and excitement over that kind of environment, those are usually the people we go after.
Find someone who fits your corporate culture and your philosophy and you see as someone with some long-term aspirations that fit within your job model. That is the better fit than someone whose skills are good and applicable but maybe, apples to apples, is maybe 70 percent of what you need but 100 percent of a culture fit versus the opposite. From a retention standpoint, the culture and the fit is so much more important than whether they’re as proficient or at the top of their game from certain specific skills requirements.
Look at people’s past bosses. I’ve found that people’s first real job out of college or their first real professional job in their field, the job, the environment and their manager has just an unbelievable effect on them, on who they are ultimately as a business worker. It’s amazing how influential it is. If you talk to someone who’s been working for 12 years, and you evaluate their management style when you want to put them in management, you can always track that style back, good or bad, to what their first real job manager was like. From an interviewing process, I ask a lot of questions and try to delve into that a little bit because I’ve found that it’s very applicable as to what they’re going to be like 10 or 20 years down the road.
How to reach: firstPRO Inc., (404) 252-9422 or www.firstproinc.com