Even the most prepared small business owners can be caught off guard by a crisis. In times of uncertainty, many of your employees, as well as your customers, will be looking for strong leadership. To help you lead through a crisis, we sought out advice from experts and customer insights and perspectives from other business owners.


Put people first

In any crisis, whether it’s a global pandemic or an issue specific to your business, it’s important to put people first.

For example, during COVID-19, New Jersey restaurant Ani Ramen House had to close temporarily. They used their existing food supply to create meal kits for 1,300 families. Owner Luck Sarabhayavanija told Nation’s Restaurant News: “We decided to make the most of a bad situation.”

Action: To lead initiatives that inspire goodwill in your community, start with what you know and stay true to the spirit of your business.


Communication is key

The first step toward leading — both your employees and your customers — is open communication. In an uncertain situation, transparency can help provide reassurance and position you as a leader.

Experts at management consulting firm McKinsey recommend focusing your message on what people need most from you. For instance, early on your employees may have worried about their jobs. In that case, a facts-based approach may work best: Share what you know, what you don’t know and the basics of your plan.

McKinsey points out that as a crisis unfolds, people may start to feel dejected. When that happens, by sharing positive news, leaders can help people feel secure and motivated. Eventually leaders need to communicate a logistical path forward.

Whatever you decide to say, make sure it gets shared with the right people. You might want to create a communication channel specifically to talk to your employees about developments related to the crisis. (For example, during COVID-19, nearly eight in 10 businesses created communications specific to the crisis, according to a Harvard Business School study.) This could be as simple as weekly video check-ins with your employees.

Action: You don’t need all the answers in order to communicate. Stay in touch with employees and ask how the evolving situation is affecting them.


Seek out practical information

Of course, communication is easier when you have access to concrete, relevant information. This can be particularly hard to find during any kind of crisis.

Seek out sources of information you trust, whether it’s an industry group, new organization, government agency, or academic institution. A number of corporate consulting firms (McKinsey, Deloitte, and Boston Consulting Group, to name a few) provide helpful insights around leadership and navigating crises. Membership-based professional groups like Business Advantage TV or trade organizations offer resources as well.

Pay particular attention to developments that could affect your business: the status of COVID-19 in your area, new rules and regulations and changes in consumer behavior.

Action: As you learn new information, share it with your employees, along with how you plan to act.


Ultimately, different businesses and situations call for different types of leaders. When in doubt, lead with what’s best for your employees, customers, and the community. You don’t have to sacrifice profit, but empathy can pay off in the long run via loyalty and positive perception.


SOURCES: McKinsey, Harvard Business School