Perspective from a Small Business Owner

by Alba M. Alemán, CEO
Originally published on LinkedIn

As we approach day 10 of a partial government shutdown and the first day of the New Year, those of us that work for, or in service of, the Federal Government are already pulling the Ouija Boards out of our closets and bracing for what could be a challenging start to the New Year. With thousands of jobs and income at risk, and the added costs of holiday travel and gifts, concern can quickly turn into panic if news of a resolution is not forthcoming.

Although we do not control the outcome of negotiations on the Hill, we do control our response to it. If our elected officials refuse to cross the aisle, let us not follow suit. Instead, let us act together with honor, integrity, and compassion. Our customers and our employees are experiencing a wide range of emotions and it is up to us as leaders to help them navigate those emotions with grace and understanding. After the 13-day shutdown of 2013, I adopted the following Shutdown Survival Guide:

1.  Plan. 

Have a written plan to survive 5-, 10-, 15-, and 20-day shutdowns already developed and in place PRIOR to a shutdown. And if you don’t already have one, now is a great time to do so! It’s like an emergency evacuation plan – the best time to write one is BEFORE an emergency strikes, and the second best time to develop one is NOW. The plan should include your approach to managing the things that are on every employee’s mind – Will I get paid? How do I charge my time if my project is shut down? Will there be an opportunity to accrue additional leave for the year after the shutdown is over? Can I go negative in my leave balance in order to continue to receive a paycheck? These are really tough questions for any business owner to respond to. And every small business’s reality is different depending on their size, number of projects impacted, and number of years in business. But, as leaders, we need to be clear regarding our intent to maintain the trust our employees place in us when they choose to work with us.

2.  Communicate. 

Communicate – with simplicity and clarity – your company’s policy for getting through the shutdown, your intent to live up to your values, and what to expect as we all ramp our contracts back up, assess the damage, and rebuild for the future. Communicate regularly and consistently, and ensure that your leaders are conveying the same messages. The last thing our employees need during this already-confusing time is conflicting messages or gaps in our communications. One thing is for certain, human beings are “meaning-making” machines and will make meaning out of silence, miscommunication, or communication gaps. Get ahead of their questions and concerns to avoid misunderstanding and unintended consequences.

3.  Stay Positive. 

As leaders, the look on our face and the words that come out of our mouths tell the story of how we are feeling inside. If we stay positive and believe in the importance of the work we do in service of our government, our employees will remain positive and continue to believe, as well. Shutdowns are inevitable in this new era of eroded trust and communications amongst our elected officials. If we want to serve, we must accept the good with the bad and stay above the fray.

4.  Get Creative. 

Shutdowns are an amazing time to get to know your employees and their own individual journeys. Think outside the box – start a company blog, share recipes that homebound employees are making, play “virtual” trivia, host a book club discussion on a favorite business book, or share your 2019 goals! Also, find ways to keep your employees mentally engaged and growing in their respective fields with online or in-person training. We subscribe to Lynda.com on LinkedIn Learning, but you can also host internal training sessions by inviting one of your own subject matter experts to share their expertise in a boardroom-style setting. Additionally, you can ask employees with larger leave balance accruals to consider “donating” leave to those most impacted by the shutdown so that no one on your team has to go without pay in January. Giving to those in need boosts employee morale and has been proven to increase personal wellness (lower blood pressure, increased self-esteem, reduced stress levels, and greater happiness!).

5.  Share Responsibility.

Difficult times require shared ownership and responsibility. As owners, we must act responsibly and let go of our preconceived notions or projections for profitability in the month of January in order to take care of our employees and prepare to serve our customers once the ‘new normal’ is re-established. Dig deep into your well of generosity and act in alignment with your business values. But stay clear of the line of self-destruction, manage cash carefully, and slow down on planned expenses for the year. It does no one any good if the business suffers irreparable damage during this time. As employees, we also bear the responsibility to be careful stewards of our company’s assets. Keeping small businesses in business is everyone’s responsibility. If taking leave (whether paid or unpaid) is needed in order to preserve the integrity and viability of the business that you work for and you are able to do so without jeopardizing your own family, then do so with pride. No matter what you are hearing on the news, please remember that there are NO WINNERS during a government shutdown, but if we all do our own part and carry our own share of the responsibility… it lightens the load and protects everyone’s ability to continue to serve.

Serving our government is one of the greatest honors of my 20 years as a business owner. If you haven’t already learned to do so… NOW is a great time to learn to make lemonade. Be well this New Year and don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you need someone to bounce ideas off of during this difficult time.