Facing What No One Saw Coming

The sky isn’t falling… but we are. Literally every landscape and snow company is having some form of this conversation as we face the uncertainty of this upcoming season. Sure, businesses have highs and lows. Champion a cause long enough and you will live to see, and lead through, true disaster – an equipment malfunction severely injuring an employee; a freak electrical short in a truck that bursts into flame; a reckless driver causing an accident with one of your field captains’ cars and they’re killed instantly. Disaster.

But even alongside disaster, what we face today with #COVID-19 drains the color from our faces. This is a true “black swan” event, as coined by Nassim N. Taleb:

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme ‘impact’. … A small number of Black Swans explains almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.

Thus as leaders we must ask: How can we face what no one saw coming?

First, take courage. No one wishes to see such days, but here they are, and here we are; our teams, our employees, and our communities are looking to us. They’re listening for wisdom, reaching for courage, watching how we lead. The road ahead is hard, and it will be hardest for leaders, but “we can” begins with “I [the leader] will”. The late Walter Anderson said:

Bad things do happen; how you respond to them defines your character and the quality of your life. You can choose to sit in perpetual sadness, immobilized by the gravity of your loss, or you can choose to rise from the pain.

Second, speak with calm, candor, and confidence. No one facing a hurricane talks about sunny days in the seven day forecast. There’s a hurricane. We all know it. What people don’t know is what to do about it or how to talk about it. By speaking plainly about it as leaders, we set the example for our organization that while our circumstances are not safe talking about them can be. We also set a precedent for the tone in which we expect to face things – feeling emotions, but not being run by them; seeing crisis, but also seeing a team lined up with us.

Third, remind people who they are and what they can do. Sunny days are when we hang our visions and values in the front office; stormy nights are when we set them in the foundation. A field captain can’t control how long quarantine lasts, but they can make sure their team follows all protocol and uses all safety equipment to keep their little group safe. An office manager can’t change what the economy will do, but they can make sure employees and their families have money for groceries because payroll ran correctly. Coach people to stay aware of the crisis but to stay focused on what they can control.

Finally, look for consistency, contingency, and efficiency. Crisis typically isn’t the best time to risk pushing all your chips to the middle of the poker table, so maybe those 1-year and 3-year objectives you set for your business don’t make the sense today that they did two weeks ago. Regroup! Try to establish through hard numbers what your level of risk is as an organization, then look at what your options are to mitigate those risks. What part of our revenue stream is contractually bound and safe to depend on, and if a shutdown hits what gets suspended? Would an investment in increased safety division hygiene programs reduce our potential HR impact? Could some of our older management staff work from home for the next two months to both keep us moving and keep them safer? What if we we tried to get by one extra quarter without that job hire? Would a migration from paper systems to software systems make us more efficient and save enough cost to offset some revenue loss? How are our cash reserves as a company? The more safety net you can visualize – and confirm – the safer you and your team will feel, and the more conservative of an approach you can adopt.

Hall of Fame coach Pat Riley famously mentored one of his teams by saying, “You have no choices about how you lose, but you do have a choice about how you come back and prepare to win again.” Our world will lose altitude for a while to this – none of us have a choice in that – but we can deploy the parachutes of wise decisions to slow that descent for a safe landing.

The hurricane will pass. I hear somewhere on the other side is sun in the forecast.


David Rempfer shares from 13 years of profit and non-profit team leadership, is a veteran of multimillion landscape and snow operations, and is one of less than 300 professionals in North America to be SIMA Executive CSP certified. He now consults industry executive and leadership teams in their pursuits of business improvement and quality-of-life.

(This blog was originally posted March 17, 2020 to LinkedIn.com.)

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