Wednesday, April 24, 2024

OPINION: HARVEY MACKAY — Business lessons from the pandemic

| May 17, 2020 1:00 AM

Harvard Business School surveyed 600 CEOs recently and asked them what keeps them awake at night during this global pandemic. The results found that almost every aspect of doing business must be completely rethought for both short-term survival and long-term success.

The issues cited fall into three main categories:

1. Continuous learning and integrating new information.

2. Making complex decisions and plans quickly and solving problems.

3. Empathy, maintaining wellness and focus.

I’m a big believer in lifelong learning. You don’t go to school once for a lifetime; you are in school all of your life. Companies need to create a corporate culture that strives for continuous improvement.

In his 1995 book “Managing in a Time of Great Change,” Peter Drucker, the late, great management guru, wrote: “It is a safe prediction that in the next 50 years, schools and universities will change more and more drastically than they have since they assumed their present form more than 300 years ago when they reorganized themselves around the printed book.

“What will force these changes is, in part, new technology; … in part, the demands of a knowledge-based society in which organized learning must become a lifelong process.”

Students and teachers at all levels have had to adjust to remote learning, and that will most definitely not be just a passing fad. With a majority of people now working remotely, new systems have been developed in short order. I don’t expect that to change as companies and employees recognize the benefits of working from home.

Many decisions were made within hours of lockdown announcements. Anyone who has management responsibilities understands that decision-making can be precarious. After you’ve done all your homework, when making decisions, I’ve found that you have to trust your gut. If I’m not sure, I check with people I trust to give me the knowledge on all sides.

As for planning, I like to say people don’t plan to fail; they fail to plan. Things no longer rest on a predictable base.

Companies spend days, if not weeks, agonizing over their mission statements and business plans. Get the business model right. Then accessorize it with the details. You may not need more than a few action plans focused on very restricted areas.

It’s not the sheer magnitude of the preparation that matters. It’s the relevance of what you do. Is it clear? Will it change behavior?

A basic principle in the sales and marketing world is that people don’t usually buy products and services. They buy solutions to problems. Successful salespeople and marketers tailor their products and services to meet a demand that is not necessarily immediately evident, but nonetheless very real. They identify problems in terms of solutions and anticipate problems long before they become apparent. They must be empathetic to their customers’ needs.

Empathy is an emotion that is a sense of shared suffering, most often combined with a desire to alleviate the suffering of another and to show special kindness to them. Compassionate acts attempt to alleviate that suffering as if it were one’s own.

Where, you might ask, does compassion fit in business? Will it hurt the bottom line? Will it make our company look soft or like a pushover?

The answers are: at all levels, no, and definitely not. Compassion and profitability are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, companies that are perceived as people-oriented and good corporate citizens have a far better chance of succeeding than those that put profits ahead of people. In times like these, empathy will win the day.

As for wellness, personal health is important for corporate health. Exercise is good for your mind as well as your body. Corporate America has long endorsed fitness and physical health, but it’s done a mediocre job getting employees to buy into the whole program.

Maintaining focus may be challenging right now, but if you can focus fully on the task at hand, and shut out everything else, you can accomplish amazing things.

Focus is a topic I hear about frequently in business. The most common complaints? Too many projects spinning at one time. Too many interruptions. Too many phone calls and emails. Too many things to do. Too little time. Too many schedules to balance. Too much uncertainty about the future.

Stay focused as best you can, and don’t let things happen to you — not when you can make things happen.

Mackay’s Moral: It’s not about what you can’t control; it’s about what you can control.

• • •

Harvey Mackay is the author of the New York Times best-seller “Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive.” He can be reached through his website,, by emailing or by writing him at MackayMitchell Envelope Co., 2100 Elm St. SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414.