The Corner Office: How Do You Make a Game Plan When You’re Not Sure What the Game Is?

It’s not exactly news that everyone is scrambling for answers right now. And while I’ve seen a lot of good leaders step up to the plate, it’s hard to play this game when the rules shift on a daily basis.

And it’s no surprise that so many people are struggling when the ground continues to shift beneath our feet. Every week there’s a new choice from your local, state, or federal government, there’s new information about COVID-19 and its transmission, and no matter what you chose yesterday, the new day may force you to reevaluate and consider if your choices are worth maintaining.

I won’t profess to be the one person in the world who knows what’s going to happen, but I do have some advice on orienting yourself through all this upheaval. Ask yourself: Do I have access to enough cash to make it through this? If I do, can I gather the resources to be in a strong position when this economic downturn is over?

Be realistic about where you are. Because the only way to get yourself into a better position is to know where you’re coming from.

If  the option is at all available to you, now is the time to lean on the gas with advertising. Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, was well-known for his aggressive approach to economic downturns. When things slowed down, he doubled down on advertising while spending as little as possible in other areas to improve his survivability. In these times, Wal-Mart spent more on ads, took bigger risks on profit margins and expanded their customer base because the dirty little secret is that bad times end too.

The worlds of retail and media aren’t exactly apples to apples, but the principle holds true in our industry as well. The people and groups who focus on just getting by might manage to squeak through, but they’ll find it hard to catch back up when the world regains a sense of normalcy. The ones who will come out of this strongest will be the people who make big moves today.

However, none of this is to suggest that any part leading during this period will be simple. If you’re a media executive, no matter the size of your organization, I have no doubt that you’re facing a tsunami of issues. In the past, you have probably felt pressure to focus on the digital sphere, downsize, and generally make all kinds of new changes that you’ve perhaps been reluctant in executing. Maybe you were hesitant for personal reasons, or maybe you suspected that the market simply wouldn’t support these ventures.

But if you have any ideas left on the table that even part of you thinks could improve your odds of getting through this, now is the perfect time to use them. Look at the advice you’ve been given in the past few years and make some hard choices. As a leader, your focus has to be on coming out as strong as possible on the other side, and I doubt that many people will be able to do that without making substantial changes.

Focus on how good products and the right talent can help you survive to see the other side of this public health crisis. I suspect that many people will worry that things won’t be as good as before, but let’s be honest, “before” wasn’t wonderful, either. Our industry hasn’t had a “great day” in a number of years, and things were tough long before the outbreak of a pandemic. While things are tougher now, it’s important that you set reasonable goals for what surviving this ordeal will look like. Because if you’re expecting to suddenly wake up in a booming industry with no hurdles, that disappointment is going to slow you down when normal life resumes.

When you’re faced with an ever-changing landscape like this, your only real choice is to look as far down the field as you possibly can, try to envision where you’ll want to be at that point, and just give yourself the best possible chance at market share when things pick up again.

The unfortunate fact is that a lot of people and organizations will not make it through the other side of this. But if you want to be among the group of survivors, this is how you start. Swing big and make bold, innovative choices. Because if there was ever a time for strong, radical leadership, this is it.

Doug Phares is the former CEO of the Sandusky News Group. He currently serves as managing director of Silverwind Enterprises, which owns and provides management services to small businesses. He is also an associate with Grimes, McGovern & Associates, specializing in news media M&A. He can be reached at doug@silverwind.biz.

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