Blog post

Isolation: a bane or boon?

This year, the term 'isolation' has become part of our everyday vocabulary, as many people have been asked to self-isolate to control the spread of Covid-19, but there is another type of isolation that is cause for concern.

Dr Koushik Das Sarma, Programme Facilitator for the Small Business Leadership Programme at the University of Derby, explores how SME leaders are coping with the effects of the virus on business and the vital support needed to help them get ahead of Covid-19 and ahead of the curve.

14 December 2020

Crisis, reaction, response, there is little doubt these words sum up life for businesses in 2020. But increasingly, as I work with a wide range of organisations across many sectors through the Small Business Leadership Programme, I am aware of another... isolation.

SME's are at the heart of our communities. They account for three fifths of employment and around half of turnover in the UK private sector. They are the cogs powering some of our region's global innovations and have driven growth in employment, talent and revenues

For many of these organisations the very nature of business is personal; the family firm handed down through the generations or the start-up from the kitchen table. Business leaders live and breathe their work and thrive on the close dynamics between them and their employees, their clients, and their suppliers. All networks and interactions have been rocked by Covid-19 and navigating the changing economic landscape in 2020 has become increasingly isolating. With Covid-19 restricting business avenues, the business owners and senior managers who are shouldering these mounting time and financial pressures are increasingly doing so alone.

Resilient businesses need resilient leaders

Much is made of building business resilience, but often the personal resilience of those leading it is left to chance or pushed back to 'when there's time'. But building a leader's own strategic skills base is vital to ensuring that a business not only survives through difficult times, but also lays the foundations to continue to build and grow.

When working in isolation, there is also no-one to challenge you or push your boundaries. We find that business leaders are slipping into short term survival mode rather than identifying the help they need to make effective and long-term change.

By developing and being supported in strengthening this personal resilience, business leaders can build strong mechanisms to keep themselves aware of what is happening outside of the silo and have the confidence to make decisions with lasting positive results.

Proactive not just reactive

This is a key mind shift: that resilience it not just the ability to act and react quickly and decisively in a crisis, but it is the strength to visualise and deliver the change that is required through a long-term lens.

When everything is changing around you, and people are looking for you to act, having that time to really reflect and press the 'pause' button can be daunting and counterintuitive, but it is necessary.

One of the key learnings business leaders attending our programme are indicating, is that in many cases the impact of the pandemic isn't the root cause of the problems within the business, rather it has exacerbated the impact of the problem on the business.

Reactive resilience answers how will we survive today, such as navigating furlough, lockdown and impacted markets. Proactive resilience directly tackles the fundamental issues within business by predicting, anticipating and building long-term capabilities. It looks beyond the pandemic and identifies the emerging market trends vis-a-vis the long-term business strategy powered by innovation and driven by a strong entrepreneurial orientation. Covid or no-Covid, there is no denial that the business environment is changing continuously. The question is, how much of it is due to Covid-19 and how much of it is just a manifestation of an existing trend merely brought to the forefront due to the pandemic?

From isolated to connected

A key element of the programme is to instil diversification and agility. Not making isolated reactive change but building a programme of innovation supported by long-term strategic objectives. Does the business have a structured strategy map with clearly thought out short, medium and long-term business goals? How much of these are based upon the emerging market trends?

That may be taking the business back to the drawing board quite fundamentally. We are supporting companies which are completely shifting their fortunes by investing in new instruments or new business models, which will bring new customer bases or build new capabilities into their workforce. It is this big picture thinking and strategy which can absorb the shocks of uncertain times by ensuring they are anticipated and even 'designed out'.

Connected strategies - connecting people

Peer-to-peer knowledge sharing is a central skill development within the University's Small Business Leadership programme and a key route to success.

Many participants talk of the loneliness and confusion 2020 has brought. During the online discussion sessions, many realised they are facing similar challenges and together they're meeting those challenges, collaborating, listening, encouraging and adapting. Idea sharing among SME leaders is rather a novelty, but the programme has been instrumental in breaking this barrier and brings business leaders from diverse sectors on to a common platform which they have benefited from.

Just as business is personal - so too is strategy

The very purpose of the online programme is that it supports the reality of leading and growing a business, and as such is specifically designed to work around full-time work.

Participants are supported to identify key challenges and objectives for their own business and to enhance their specific capabilities across a portfolio of strategies including operational efficiency, financial management, customer relationships and employee engagement.

It is personal, relevant, connected, and forward-thinking, bringing business and learning together to ensure that future success is not an isolated or isolating business.

The fully funded Small Business Leadership Programme is open to business into January 2021. Find out more or register your interest.

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