“Adapt or die”: Five lessons in business resilience from COVID-19


Alan Manly. Source: Supplied.

Building a business is not for the faint-hearted. The obstacles are significant, the naysayers are many and the risks are plentiful. Not to mention COVID-19, which has provided many lessons in how resilience works in practice.

Resilience is defined as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change”, and the pandemic is the biggest global misfortune since World War II.

Here are five of the main lessons about resilience arising from COVID-19.

Reconnect with customers

As the founding father of modern management studies Peter Drucker explains, the purpose of a business is “to create a customer”. 

Yet, COVID-19 and the resulting lockdowns and national border closures have denied many businesses this most fundamental activity.

All the other items required for business were still in place: staff were still on the books, properties were still leased, capital equipment was still there. The one thing missing was customers. 

Hence, the first act of the resilient entrepreneur when coming out of the pandemic is to reconnect with customers. 

Let them know you are still open for business. Outline any new or changed service provisions. Demonstrate your COVID-safe processes. 

But most of all, listen — how are they? Have their needs changed? What can you do to help them?

It will take resilience and tenacity to win back old customers and to identify new ones.

There are always winners and losers

In all market downturns, there are winners and losers. COVID is no exception.

Harvey Norman, for instance, reported more sales than ever before, with profit soaring 185%. Major supermarket chains and postage services similarly saw booming demand, to the extent that they needed to put on extra staff to cope.

Others, of course, have not been so lucky. Who would have thought just 18 months ago that Australians would be restricted from overseas and even interstate travel?

The only certainty is uncertainty, and entrepreneurs with resilience are prepared for either outcome.

Strong leadership builds resilience

Good leadership isn’t just about driving business growth and success in good times. It takes a skilled leader to motivate teams and maintain staff morale under trying circumstances.

That leadership must have one overarching purpose: maintaining support for the customer. Staff wellness, public image and social action won’t ever replace a customer-focused business. 

This lesson is going to be hard to accept for many entrepreneurs and employees alike. The background is a seemingly endless success built on a boom that lasted great lengths, with Australia avoiding recession for almost 30 years

Teams — especially younger ones — will be looking to their leaders and managers for guidance on how to continue supporting customers now that the game has changed.

Adapt or die

In the early days of COVID, we heard many stories of how businesses pivoted their operations — cafes became meal delivery outlets; distilleries began producing sanitiser; theatre prop builders turned to manufacturing home office furniture.

These adaptations were no accident. 

Resilience in business is about finding and keeping customers, which may involve identifying new ways to deliver products and services to customers or pivoting operations entirely. Whatever it takes to keep paying customers coming through the door.

A resilient state of mind

The fallout from any crisis or market shock is never the same. It differs between businesses and between industries. COVID has made this painfully clear. 

Some industries and markets have enjoyed a rapid bounce back from the initial shock of harsh lockdowns. Others hardest hit by the pandemic could take five years or more to get back to pre-COVID levels, management consultancy McKinsey suggests. Some may never recover at all.

There is no fixed timeframe on how long resilience is needed. Rather, it must be an ongoing part of every business and those operating within it. 


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