I’ve been asked to offer advice and counsel to entrepreneurs and CEOs on the best process for leading through a crisis. In times like these, my best advice is “to thine own self be true,” create and customize a plan that is authentic and right for you and your organization. However, here is an easy to follow process, with my personal context that can be adapted to your own set of circumstances to help you organize your thoughts, emotions, teams, work and wallet.
It has been proven that there is great distrust of government and media that is growing during this time of crisis and thus you have a great social responsibility to your employees and served communities to provide honest, high fidelity signal and messaging to cut through the noise. You must be empathetic and understanding of the angst and fear that your employees are feeling. Your people are relying on you to think clearly and act decisively.
The 12-Step Plan:
- PRINCIPLES: Early on we understood that the COVID-19 crisis was a global issue and that what we were facing was so much bigger than sports and our company. We came together quickly – more than six weeks ago to write down our guiding principles, and I made sure that my personal outcomes were in total alignment with our company and our employees desired outcomes. We all agreed that we would not be making grand pronouncements and offering our vision for long term planning and that we would instead provide employees with 100-day action plans. We made sure to create a network of networks, an internal Task Force and then leadership teams with subcommittees to create alignment and messaging in workflows.
Our major breakthrough in our founding principles was to create a “waterfall” of how our work, dollars, and efforts would cascade through each community in their preferred positions. Once we established that waterfall, we developed regular communication schedules and developed as much of a routine and focused work within our company as possible. In times of chaos, making work focused and accentuating competence and simplicity is key. While decisions will be fluid and made in real time, you must have a few guiding principles that are sacrosanct to center your organization. In times of crisis, empathy, grit, integrity and humor will carry the day. We start and end every day with team meetings, but we understand that working at home creates a new set of family circumstances. Balance is important. We as a team are always guided by our principles and are always balancing people – enterprise – community and personal well-being.
- PEOPLE: In our waterfall, we decided to place people first, to deal with our own work family as the center of our universe and to understand that the well-being of our colleagues and associates is not only about their purpose but also their physical, mental and economic health. I have stated that our company must create a “safe port in the storm.” We had to clearly understand who was on our team and make hard decisions on who we could focus our resources and dollars on —what do they need to work successfully at home, how to keep them safe, how to help them manage their family and at home life—how to efficiently communicate to the team but create a sense that what we say is authentic and trustworthy; that we have a plan to keep them safe in the short term and we can envision how and when we can come out of this time of crisis together as a stronger organization. In our work, our people will always have the preferred position and to date no employee has been furloughed. I am very proud of our ownership group for their support of this decision and for helping us to make this possible. We all recognize that tough decisions may lie ahead, however, by focusing on 100 days at a time we were all able to rally and meet this first principle about putting people first.
- PARTNERSHIPS: For our enterprise, if our people are 1a, then our partners are 1b. We have many partnerships we work with, exhibit empathy and a cooperative spirit, including our leagues—NBA, NHL, WNBA, NBA G League, and the NBA 2K League—our city and Mayor; our neighboring states and governments of Maryland and Virginia; our partners at NBC Sports Washington, NBC Sports, ESPN, Turner, Rogers, Capital One Arena; our fans, our suite and season ticket holders; and our sponsors. We assigned people and leadership to connect with our partners and expressed early on a spirit of “we are in this together” and that we look forward to working together for the long-term. We focused on innovating and helping our partners, and I am very proud of that work. A great example of this can be seen in the innovative video game simulations that we debuted on NBC Sports Washington and Monumental Sports Network. We also quickly arranged for last year’s Mystics Playoff and Championship run, which was broadcast on ESPN, to now be shown on Monumental Sports Network and NBC Sports Washington. Leveraging our experience in esports, we sprang into action to deliver engaging pieces of programming for our fans, while also demonstrating ourselves as good partners to our regional sports network. I personally have never had as many calls, email exchanges and video meetings with as many of our partners as I have over the last six weeks and there isn’t a single moment of any day that has not been spent on communications with our people and our partners.
- PROPERTY: Unlike some other markets and teams, we own our building at Capital One Arena. We pay the mortgage, we pay the principal, we pay for the upkeep, maintenance and the security. We understand the importance our building plays in the well-being of our city and its strategic importance of being located atop a Metro station. We made the decision to always keep the building secure and ready to reopen when the time is right. We are always heeding the rules that the government mandates—and we are certainly grateful that governments are now speaking with conviction and mandate, not simply with recommendations. We went to virtual work status the minute the leagues suspended games and we paid our part-time building employees for events in March and April that were postponed. Those payments to part-time building employees were not an advance against their scheduled work—when our part-time employees get back to work, they will get paid again for the work they deliver. This was our unanimous decision as an ownership group and executive team. To do the right thing—we placed our People, our Partnerships and our Properties in this order in our values chain.
- PHILANTHROPY: Our social impact partnerships with local nonprofits have allowed us to make a tangible difference across our community. We have used our social media platforms to connect fans to groups like Martha’s Table and DC Central Kitchen, to provide bags of groceries to families and helping to feed children missing school meals. Our players are donating to meal-for-meal match programs where every meal ordered will be matched with a donation of food to a needy family, to our medical and health caregivers and are also dropping off power bars at local first responder sites. We are promoting blood drives for our hospital partner and even our sportscasters are taping cameo recordings for fans and donating proceeds to nonprofit food groups. With all hands-on deck, we hope to make this situation a little easier for those who need the help. MSE Foundation created a “Feeding the Frontlines” fund to provide meals to heroes in the medical community. The chefs from the Caps & Wizards will be making meals for frontline care givers. You can support this effort by contributing here.We are also making a donation to MedStar Emergency Support Fund to help provide financial support to medical staff working long hours away from their families and will continue to raise funds through MSE Foundation to support our community through this crisis.
- PROJECTS: We needed to find a way to fund our people, partnership, and property initiatives and to very simply zero-base budget what our return state would look like and what our cash position and cash needs would be. Frankly, we are cutting out non-essential projects to find cash to fund our work during the crisis. It has been an amazing process—when you tell your people that we can get through this first stage by prioritizing People over Projects, you would be amazed by how much money you can save. When you do return, your organization will be leaner and much more agile too. In this regard, a “crisis is a terrible thing to waste” and common sense saves the day for an organization to determine what is truly essential and what is eating cash without benefit to the organization.
- PROTOCOLS: It is vital for all businesses to follow mandated protocols via government, banks and your partners and in our case, the leagues. It is a priority to put in place systems for information sharing regarding the protocols to be reviewed and approved by senior management. It is vital that all protocols be formally established and that communications be 100% accurate in real time – and always in writing. In this unique and unprecedented crisis, reporting honestly on all health-related matters is our number one protocol to follow.
- POLICY: We feel it is important to keep up with our city, our neighboring states and the federal government emerging crisis policy. We have tried to advocate for policy that would be to the benefit of workers and small businesses. As a company employing more than 500 people, there is little we can receive from the Small Business Administration. We also pay a 10 percent tax on admission, which is pre-paid, so we’ve already been paying those tax dollars to DC for next season’s admissions. We have also strongly communicated to our local leaders that the DMV is really one market and to have different polices and different models in Virginia vs. Maryland vs. DC is not smart governing. Interestingly, about 1/3 of our employee base and 1/3 of our fan base are each located in DC, Virginia and Maryland. We are impacted by the spread of the virus, government mandates and individual’s actions in each of these jurisdictions.
We have been staunch advocates for DC to be treated as a state and not a territory via the recently passed federal legislation. There has truly been an amazing amount of discussion around policy, but I have been surprised by how little resources and money has actually arrived to those in need. This is why we take our principles so seriously and know that our actions to our employees have been viewed as clear signal through a lot of noise.
- PLANNING: We have assigned teams to scenario plan multiple outcomes, timeframes, dollars and people needed, new organizational structures, reimagining what a new world would look like and asking existential questions by being fearless in their scenario game theory and planning for how we can be better prepared for the next crisis. We are also learning a lot about working from home and new ways to operate during this last six weeks. What will the nature of our new business work environment post-pandemic be? This is NOT busy work for your employees. It is vital work that’s needed in order to act in 100-day increments and to be ready to move strategically after this crisis passes. This is also where the next winners will be determined—the way companies act tactically, keep their organizations together and still plan strategically. For businesses, this will differentiate the ‘haves’ from the ‘have nots’ in 2021 and beyond.
- PLATFORMS AND PIXELS: In times of crisis, knowing where the data is and preparing to protect the pixels from the bad actors and being even more secure while you work at home. You must find data that is actionable—creating simple dashboards is key. We are all still drowning in our own oceans of data and we are now very determined to find a simple playbook to help us gauge the well-being of our company moving forward. I wish we had a playbook already made, so when the crisis hit, we could have simply opened a file on what to do determined and guided by good and up-to-date numbers. Words like “pandemic,” “death” and “bankruptcy” sharpen the mind and we must work to get better value from our platforms and pixels during a crisis and to inoculate ourselves from bad decision-making when there’s another crisis.
- PIVOTING: If you create a platform and a presentation of data that enlightens your team you can begin your own internal pivoting as to what is really happening in your organization. Once you have your priority datasets to review you can then add third party data to further inform your future actions. There is no shame in pivoting for the next 100 days as your plans evolve. There is also no harm in acting quickly on new data and communicating that quickly. I’ll give you a personal example – last week I held a video briefing with our ownership group and spoke with conviction about a real time data point. A mere ninety-two minutes later, I received a report that flipped this data point significantly. I quickly pivoted and communicated that fact to all. All were appreciative of the update based on the facts that were presented. No one plays “gotcha” on changing your mind when it is based on data, principles and open communication.
- PHASING THE COMEBACK PLAN: For a return and comeback—just as we have a 100-day action plan for the shutdown, we are now working on a 100-day playbook and set of guidelines for the next phase of the crisis; and a 100-day playbook for when we return to work. We must bookend our planning, thinking and budgeting for the crisis (as long as it lasts), as well as post-crisis. Being mindful of the chaos on the happy day when business does reopen is a key piece of work that we all must consider. I do not believe that a switch will be turned on and we will immediately go from darkness to light. I believe we will have a phasing of a return in professional sports and we will plan accordingly. Put a team in place to handle this as a part of a task force—guided by the core principles.
So, there you have it. I hope this is helpful and that it provides confidence that you are working in a mindful and responsible way. People are counting on you—don’t let them down.
I wish everyone well and good health. I hope you can put this cheat sheet to good use and as a reference point as you create your individual plan.