Advice & TipsFranchiseeJanuary/February 2021Resource Articles

Leading Strong

Franchise professionals offer advice and guidance on how to lead your staff during difficult times

It’s often during challenging times that the strongest leaders emerge, showing their strengths for taking control and navigating through difficult circumstances. At any point in time, a leader in any industry big or small might have to step up and make changes to protect their business and their team.

As a franchisee, you may wonder what you can do to show your staff that you’re a strong and responsible leader. Prospective franchisees might wonder what traits will show your future team that you’re a reliable leader with the knowledge and tools to make your business succeed in any kind of choppy waters.

There are many things to consider when it comes to being a good leader: how to lead through any type of crisis, how to financially prepare and protect your business, how to provide consistent and efficient communication to your team, and why it’s important to celebrate the little things during uncertain times.

Strong leaders can shine both during the good times and the difficult times. Battling the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic is certainly the latter. As brands continue to financially recover following the pandemic, it’s now as important as ever for you to focus on protecting your business and your team.

Leading through chaos

As Think GREAT founder, Erik Therwanger, puts it, “Right now there is no greater time to step up as leaders than through this chaos. This is the time when we need to raise our leaderships bar. I think leadership is challenging enough during the good times, but right now it could feel chaotic.”

Therwanger joined the Canadian Franchise Association (CFA) in the Navigating Towards Recovery webinar series which was later adapted into an episode of the Franchise Canada Chats podcast.

“I want you to think about this: do you have a group, or do you have a team? The best way to make it through this chaos is with a team,” says Therwanger. “When people perform as a group, they tend to act like individuals: they’re only thinking about themselves, focus on their personal objectives, and perform very much in the moment. A team acts as a cohesive unit who look out for each other and focus on common objectives.”

In order to get through any type of chaos, Therwanger identifies the two types of leadership blades that stand at either side of the management spectrum. The first, he calls the leadership butterknife. “Butterknives are good for one thing: they spread things around. There’s a lot of leaders right now just spreading things around. They may have a position of leadership, but they don’t understand the purpose, and they accomplish very little.”

Second, is the Katana sword, “Designed to get the job done right the first time,” says Therwanger. “In order to achieve the level of the Katana, that metal has to go into the fire, the heat, and then it comes out and gets pounded, forged, and transformed. Without the fire, you’re left with a butterknife.”

Ultimately, Therwanger says, you need to lead your way through chaos, you can’t try to manage your way through it. 

Money, money, money

As a great leader, you should also be financially responsible and prepared for any potential economic hit against your business.

David Druker, president and CEO of The UPS Store Canada, says that difficult economic times are “a wake-up lesson to people that they have to be fiscally responsible to manage their cash flows and their business. They can’t keep running their business on the premise that the next cheque that comes in will cover the last cheques that they wrote. This is unfortunately where cash flow dries up.”

Druker joined the CFA on the Franchisor Panel as part of the webinar, Leading Through Turbulent Times. He was joined by Ken Otto, CEO of Redberry Restaurants and John Gilson, vice president of COBS Bread. John DeHart, chief strategist of Hartify Consulting, moderated the panel. The speakers unanimously emphasize the importance of protecting yourself financially and being responsible for where you put your money and how you ask for help when you need it.

“We’ve got to be realistic as well, you need to plan for a rainy day, manage your cash flow, be responsible, and watch your numbers,” says Druker.

Gilson adds that one of the key phone calls you can make for your financial plan is actually to your bank, whether to ask for help with loan payments, discuss going interest only, or to secure a greater line of credit.

Fortunately, the franchise business model works to protect franchisees who have the support and guidance of their franchisor. “Independent businesses no doubt will fare much worse than franchisees and franchisors,” says Otto. But with the power of leveraging ideas, connections, and wisdom, you can prepare for any storm that comes your way.

No such thing as too much communication

Beyond managing your finances, as a great leader you must also maintain frequent communication with your team. Whether that’s by phone, email, or other devices, you should reach out for a helping hand when needed while also remembering to let your team know that you’re there to support them.

“Phone the folks you need help with today, don’t wait for tomorrow,” says Otto. “A lot of people will come to your aid because they’re motivated to be there for you today as they were last week.” 

Otto adds that if you show that you’ve looked at your business, and share with your partners what you’re doing to manage your cash and make various sacrifices, then they will work with you to provide support. “But if you come in empty handed and ask for help with no plan, that’s not helpful. Put the work into your plan, show your partners what you’re doing before you’ve asked them for support, and you’ll have a lot more open ear.”

At the end of the day, Otto says that in difficult times the worst thing to do is not talk about the important stuff. It’s okay to admit to your team that you don’t know what’s going on at the moment, but when you do find out, you need to immediately let them know.

At the same time, you should be a reassuring and confident leader for your team. In times of uncertainty, Gilson says that “Urgency is the key point, but also with a level of calmness to make sure everyone understands that what’s happening today is correct and what’s happening tomorrow is a little unknown.”

“Panic is contagious, so is leadership,” says DeHart. “This is crisis, and they need to hear from you. As a leader, you have the opportunity to get everybody engaged and to help.”

Therwanger adds a key point: if you’re going to lead people, then you have to understand them and know what they need from you as their leader. Most importantly, you can’t leave huge gaps in communication, because if you aren’t filling those gaps, then your team members are filling it themselves, and they may not have the correct facts to do so, says Otto.

“The confidence and clarity that you can gain through providing daily communication in whatever format is invaluable,” says Gilson. “We don’t know what tomorrow brings but we have to be ready for it and go 180 if we need to.”

While you’re practicing responsible communication, you can also teach your team how to develop their own leadership skills. Using this technique, Therwanger points to two opposite sides on the leadership spectrum: training and development. As a franchisee, you can train your staff on how to do their jobs, but the development aspect will encourage and allow them to also think like leaders and excel at their jobs.

“There’s a difference between management and leading. And that difference for me in a nutshell is: we want to manage the work, budgets, shift schedules, projects, and jobs,” says Therwanger. “But we want to lead people: engage them, empower them, and communicate dynamically. The best part about leadership is it can go home with you, you can be a better leader in the workplace, home front, and in your communities.”

Celebrate the little things

Your strong leadership skills should also include setting aside some time to share any accomplishments and achievements with your team. DeHart advises that you find opportunities to celebrate, since most of your day during turbulent times is focused on managing various crises. “The news isn’t so encouraging, but between our operators and people, be it a franchisee or franchisor, there’s acts of brilliance every single day. We need moments of optimism and we have to find times to recognize that.”

Echoing DeHart’s sentiment, Otto emphasizes that “We have to be focused on good times as well when they happen.” He points to a silver lining that comes even after difficult times, which shows that the normal curve indicates the franchise model is still strong. “I don’t think anyone is predicting that this is going to be a multi-year thing. It is arguable that the tide has turned. In some ways I think this might actually be a silver lining in terms of the accessibility of financing for small business.”

Another celebratory item according to both DeHart and Therwanger is that in times of crisis, there are always new opportunities for leaders to grasp onto. As a good leader, you should set attainable goals and look into the future because you share a vision with your team and know where you’re going. “It doesn’t make the current chaos easier, but it allows you to get through it together,” says Therwanger.

After all, says DeHart, when you go through a crisis, you just need to get through it one day at a time.

CFA’s Navigating Towards Recovery Webinar Series, April 30, 2020, Erik Therwanger
CFA’s Leading Through Turbulent Times – Franchisor Panel, March 16, 2020, David Druker, Ken Otto, John Gilson & John DeHart