The coronavirus pandemic will test every startup leader, and their performance will be graded by those they lead. Should the leader falter, that judgment is likely to be unsparingly harsh.
The test couldn’t be harder: the future is unknowable and the crisis is double-edged. You must keep the business afloat and keep your people safe. You are also likely doing it remotely. And as the knowns and unknowns change—rapidly and unpredictably—your people will suffer great anxiety, especially if they don’t know what their leader is trying to accomplish.
You can help allay that anxiety and set a steady course, despite the unknowns, by creating and communicating a UMO—an Ultimate Minimum Objective. In the case of today’s dual crisis, that’s two UMOs, one for the business and one for the health of your people.
A UMO is the lowest set of objectives the team must accomplish. It does not change for the duration of the crisis. The team’s mission is to achieve the objective; otherwise, they have failed. A UMO is also a rallying point for the team, inviting buy-in and creating alignment in action, which is critical for maximizing productivity and minimizing anxiety.
The business UMO should fit the company’s specific circumstances. For a startup that has lost a great deal of business and is bleeding cash, the baseline is understanding that rebuilding revenues, once society returns to normal, could take many months. The company’s business UMO may be something along the lines of “we will do whatever it takes to maintain a positive bank balance over the next twelve months.” For a retailer, the UMO might be “we will do whatever it takes to preserve our inventory in excellent shape so it can be sold at a profit once the crisis is over.”
Such business UMOs are objective, measurable and easy for the team to comprehend. Every subsequent decision can be set in the context of getting the team closer to achieving the UMO. As new information arrives, new decisions can be made on how to respond in the context of the UMO. The leader won’t appear to flip-flop or behave inconsistently, actions that would cause staff to question their leadership. If, in the case of the company bleeding money, the projections of cash flow show that the UMO cannot be met without furloughs, nobody will question the leader doing what has to be done.
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