First Person: Leading Through A Pandemic (And The Road Ahead)

"I didn't think my business was ever managed badly, but it's definitely managed a whole lot better now. But more than anything, I will be happier. More balanced, less stressed, and more appreciative of what really matters."

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Like many business leaders, I’m navigating the rollercoaster of challenges and emotions that come with driving a business through the new normal caused by the COVID-19 crisis. 

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However, unlike many others, I had completed the buyout of my communications business from a global agency network just six months before this crisis hit. 

After many years, I had managed to pull it off! We were finally independent! We redefined ourselves, rebranded, and relaunched. We were on a high and business was booming. Yes, I thought, it was worth taking the financial risk, worth remortgaging property in the UK, and worth putting a return to the UK on the backburner for many years.  

First up, we had to move offices. Yes, I’d wanted shiny new offices. How could we feel like a new business if we had to come into the same building every day?! In December, we served notice on our lease, and signed for a lovely boutique villa facing the beach road. We got to work on fit out plans, and set our move date for May 1, 2020.  

And then the crisis hit

Slowly at first. We had a member of staff on holiday in the Philippines, and we asked him to work from home on his return, as we were a little worried about the coronavirus pandemic that was just starting to make the news at the time. However, like everyone else, we had no idea of what was coming next. We would not even be able to access our old office to pack up, let alone fit out a new one! 

Related: Survival Of The Fittest: A Game Plan For MENA Businesses To Get Through The COVID-19 Pandemic

However, it has meant we have been able to plan an office that is absolutely fit for our post COVID-19 world. More free flowing space, less “traditional” desks, as we’re unlikely to ever return to a five-day office-based week, while also to emphasize a more lounge-style approach to prioritize comfort over corporate. 

Granted there have been days where it has been hard to stay positive, but overall, I like to think I’ve risen to the challenge. Of course, that’s not possible to do alone, or without a business that was well managed, and was in the right shape moving into this crisis. So, what have we done that has got us through to this point, and what does the future look like? Here’s my viewpoint:

1. Cash flow is king, along with stellar financial advice and support. If you went into this crisis with a cashflow issue, your days were probably already numbered. Thankfully, my financial director is beyond obsessive about always having three months of salary in the bank at any one time. I used to find that a bit frustrating really- but not anymore. It’s been a godsend.  

2. Forecasting matters more than ever. Forecasting for the next four quarters ahead is critical, and this applies for every line, i.e. revenues, costs, cashflow. And then reforecast. Plan every scenario, and know the points where you’re going to have to pivot. If you’ve got the right financial director in place, this part is a lot easier. I limit this as much as I can, as it stops me focusing on the team and clients and new business– the things that can change our fortunes! But no, that’s a fool’s game in these times. You have to know your numbers, and you have to know when to act, and what you’re going to do.  

3. Be as transparent as you can. I share pretty much everything with my team. Sometimes, I’m sure that’s been a bit scary lately, but I take the view it’s better to worry about what you know than what you don’t know. And trust matters– breach that trust, and it can get toxic pretty fast.

4. Start planning the future. What kind of office will you need? How will you protect your teams and your clients who visit? How can you take all the best experiences from the last few months to maintain a new flexi-working model?  

And I’m saving the most important point for number 5.

5. Get inside your business– really inside. Live every part of it. For me, this has been the biggest learning, and it has brought me the most joy. I’ve realized how much I love what I do, and that has come from actually doing it relentlessly day in, day out right at the coalface. I can honestly say I know my people and my clients better than ever. You can’t expect everyone to put their shoulders to the wheel if you’re not doing it, and team spirit doesn’t just miraculously appear– it has to be cultivated, nurtured, fueled. This has been the biggest gain from this crisis for me– the support we’ve given each other. Colleagues looking out for each other, clients doing everything in their power to support our business, and a network of industry friends all checking in with each other. There was a defining moment about two months in when a client called me to say they had received my invoice, and would put the payment straight through on the same day. We will all remember these actions.

I hope we all come out of this remembering everything we have learned. I know for a fact, I am far better at what I do now than before. I didn’t think my business was ever managed badly, but it’s definitely managed a whole lot better now. But more than anything, I will be happier. More balanced, less stressed, and more appreciative of what really matters.  

Related: The New Global Order: The Impact Of The COVID-19 Pandemic On Business

Loretta Ahmed

Written By

Founder and CEO of Houbara Communications, Loretta Ahmed is a public relations, brand reputation, and crisis communications expert with over 30 years of solid experience guiding clients through transformational times. She is experienced in leading multi-channel campaigns, creative thinking, business planning, and nation branding. 
 
Previously, she was CEO for Grayling’s UK operations before moving to the region to head up Grayling’s MEA business in 2013.  In 2019, she acquired the UAE business to create an 
independent agency, whilst retaining close ties to Grayling’s global network. Houbara Communications now acts as its Middle East affiliate.  During her time with Grayling, Loretta has been the global lead on the Jaguar Land Rover account. Activity spanned corporate PR, CSR, and crisis communications across 28 countries. She also let the corporate communications work for Coca Cola devising programs to leverage their CSR commitments in the areas of recycling and reduction of water use in their production process.  
 
Loretta has been previously recognized for her “outstanding contribution to the PR industry” by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), and is a former chair of Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) MENA, as well as a former Vice President for the Middle East Region for International Communications Consultancy Organization (ICCO).  She is now a board member for Global Women in PR MENA, and was recognized by PRCA MENA as the Middle East PR Leader of the Year in 2020.