5 ways to turn a crisis into an opportunity

John F Kennedy said it best more than 60 years ago.

The charismatic President, speaking in 1959, explained that in the Chinese language the word crisis was composed of two brush strokes. The first represented danger. The second, opportunity.

A sense of danger has certainly been among the kaleidoscope of emotions I’ve felt in my first weeks as president of the Really Epic Dog Group of companies. It has been heart-breaking to watch Covid-19 indiscriminately rip through our communities; inspiring to watch our key workers perform with such stoicism and deeply despairing to see people losing their jobs, livelihoods and so much more.

We know that at Really Epic Dog our people are feeling their own range of emotions and facing their own challenges – they have told us so. We have been fortunate to be able to continue to pay all of our employees in full across eight companies. That has helped us move the focus away from the potential dangers and downsides of Covid-19 towards trying to find the opportunities in the crisis.

And it has worked. I will pick out a couple of examples from companies in the group, but I could name more. The first is the team at 7 Elite Academy, who have produced a world class train-at-home football programme to ensure the thousands of kids on their books can continue to get better in lockdown. They have also produced a series of masterclass video sessions with leading figures from the game. 

None of this is based on new thinking. Many of the most significant political, technological and creative movements in history have been borne out of our greatest moments of adversity: jazz from the Great Depression, rock ‘n’ roll and The United Nations from World War II. Satellite technology, portable cameras and computer games from The Cold War. And you can go further back, to 380BC no less, to find Plato coining the phrase ‘necessity is the mother of invention.’ History, and many of its most important figures, have always agreed that even in our most difficult moments, there is opportunity. But when a crisis is actually happening, how do you find those openings?

I thought I’d share 5 pieces of advice I have been given by the diverse network of mentors and colleagues, whose opinions I most value. I hope it can help you find your own opportunities. 

1. Be prepared to think differently

Once a crisis hits, the only way to turn danger into opportunity is to completely change your mindset. Seeing the path forward requires a new way of thinking, seeing and responding. If you just apply your tried and tested methods, you may find that you temporarily find shelter from the gathering storm, but you will quickly realise that it isn’t solving the underlying issue which is causing you the real problem. So be prepared to think about your business in a completely new way. 

2. Don’t get caught up with costs

When the revenue dries up, it is natural the focus will turn to costs – how to save, what to cut, what to keep, what to do? It’s easy to get caught up in that but try to look at this another way. If you focus on costs and simply cutting them until life ‘gets back to normal’, you not only risk missing completely what is happening now but you also risk being unable to act when opportunities do arise. New problems are being created every single day, which means there are new opportunities arising every day. So yes, take time to carefully understand your financial position but keep one eye on what is coming your way too. No one knows when, or even if, the world will return to normal. But it’s critical that we don’t simply shelter and wait for that to happen and that we do, where we can, focus on what the possibilities are right now.

3. Tell your team it’s okay to fail

Finding a solution the problems you are facing is unlikely to land in your lap. It will require work, insight, trial and, of course, error. If you really want your people to be creative and to innovate in the way every business needs to during a crisis, then you have to create a culture where people are not criticised for taking risks. Only a culture that truly embraces innovation and creativity will make your team feel safe and secure to dig deep and find the solutions. The best business leaders know that and give their teams the safety net, as well as the space and time, to innovate. And the time is an important factor because sometimes the very best ideas only come to light when you have tried everything else and none of it has worked. 

4. Watch for emerging talent

It was Winston Churchill who, rather clumsily, said, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” The sentiment feels heartless now as we watch the damage Covid-19 is doing to humanity but in the midst of a crisis there are learnings to be found in every aspect of life – business is no different. In the midst of the most difficult times, it will not take long for you to realise who your most valuable staff are. Future leaders, and previously unidentified rising stars will emerge as they rise to meet the challenge. Ulysses S Grant, the American Civil War hero, is one such example. He graduated from the West Point Military Academy as an average student. As a farmer he failed and a number of businesses he started went the same way. But when the Civil War broke out, he returned to the military and rose to the challenge facing his country, eventually being appointed by Abraham Lincoln as the commander of all US forces. It’s widely believed that Grant’s creativity and relentlessness inspired the American victory. President Eisenhower would later say of him, “he rose to the occasion unlike I have ever seen in American history.” Cometh the hour, cometh the man or indeed woman in your company. Good people will rise to the top during the toughest times and you will need those people to help you identify the opportunities in the storm.     

5. Don’t sell, focus on relationships

In most cases, this is not the time to be hard selling. Pushing your product or service to people who are weighing up cutting staff, costs and trying to preserve their business is not a great look. You should, however, be in touch with every one of your clients, customers, prospects and friends, not to sell, but to remind them you will be there when they need you and you will do whatever it takes to help them navigate this crisis, regardless of your fee. If you are able to be available to people in that way, offering perspective, advice or perhaps just to be a sounding board, they will never, ever forget it. And that kind of authentic relationship building is invaluable. Note, this is just as important for brands as it is for individuals. At times like these, companies, business leaders and people show their true colours. And it is worth remembering that once this is over, people won’t forget what those colours looked like.