Lessons to learn from the coronavirus
Among the lesser-known byproducts of WWII were the results of a series of in-depth studies that the U.S. Army did into how and why soldiers fight and win. The research — begun almost as soon as the country had entered the war — called for an extraordinary degree of self-awareness, as well as similar levels of self-confidence; after all, you have to assume you’ll survive to learn something to begin this kind of study. Learn we did, though: The results of those studies completely reshaped the American military for the better for decades to come, and are the basis of many of its current core strengths.
I’d suggest that it’s important for your firm to display a similar level of self-awareness (call it self-absorption, if you like) as you struggle through the current coronavirus pandemic. Take regular notes on all the changes, big and small, that you’re making, not just with an eye to whether they work in the short term, but with an eye to which to bring with you into the long term.
- Temporary expedients, Part 1: Your firm will undoubtedly be implementing a host of temporary measures in the face of the pandemic: new workflows, new management and reporting structures, new workarounds, new deliverable pathways, and so on. In many cases, these will violate old rules or partner shibboleths, but you’ll accept them in order to keep things moving. Remote work is the great example: Many firms dragged their heels on this before March, and have only grudgingly accepted it now — but, like many of the other expedients you adopt, it is absolutely worth continuing once things return to normal. Judge your stop-gap measures not just on how they perform now, but on their potential to make your firm better in the long term.
- Temporary expedients, Part 2: Not everything you do in response to the crisis will be worth continuing, of course. Some of your ad hoc structures and workflows will probably best be dismantled — but after four, or six, or eight months, the temporary often begins to seem like the permanent, and five or six years later, staff will ask, “Why do we still do it this way?” and no one will remember that it was born out of desperation, and was never meant to be perpetuated.
- Remember if they stood out: Some employees will shine in the current environment. They’ll be innovative and creative; they’ll solve their problems and find ways to help others solve theirs; they’ll go above and beyond. Be aware that many will not be CPAs or accountants. Make a note of their strengths and revisit with them after the crisis, because these are precisely the people you want leading your organization in the future.
- Forget it if they didn’t. Not everyone stands out in a crisis; not everyone can rise to the challenge. In many cases, they’re dealing with other crises you know nothing about, or facing challenges at home. No matter what, this is a time for generosity — generosity with your staff, with your clients, with your partners and, not least, with yourself. That can often start best with a little selective amnesia.
Everything else, though, is worth remembering, and studying: Now is a time for experiments and practicalities, for figuring out what works and letting the chips fall where they may — but don’t forget that there will be a future, and that the kind of stress test your firm is undergoing now can yield valuable lessons for making that future better.