How To Be a Great Business Partner During Challenging Times

Companies are having more conversations lately about 1) doing more with less, 2) doing the same with less, or 3) doing the same with the same. When macroeconomic environments start to hit business fundamentals, it’s only natural for companies to start to look for ways to improve efficiency. Here are some things you can do to help.

Find out where the company needs you most overall

If your company is making changes with regard to how you’re doing business, such as pumping the growth a bit less, or focusing on specific areas to make the business run better, there might be teams you don’t normally work with who could really use your help. For example, are there any new teams tied to revenue? Can you better support any sales enablement needs? Are there teams that might have experienced cutbacks but are vital to the business where you might be able to cover?

Talk to leaders around the company and listen to their pain points and needs. Pay attention to how priorities and budgets may be shifting. Most importantly, listen to what C-level leaders, especially in Finance, are saying are the most important metrics for your company to prioritize overall. Are there any focus areas, countries or languages that are expected to be of outsized importance in the year ahead? Talk to your own team about where you might be able to add value, where they might be hearing about other challenges and pain points too. Are there any tasks their counterparts carry out that they could help with? Are there any other ways they can deliver value? Now is the time to listen closely to all voices that come forward, but especially ones with creative and out-of-the-box suggestions.

Focus on what matters most… at this point in time

There is always more work to be done than can possibly ever be done, but during challenging economic backdrops, it’s more important than ever to focus on the things that really have a demonstrated impact or obvious return on investment (ROI). Don’t be afraid to say “no” to things that might not be a focus for your company right now. Also, try to be even more intentional about how you align your own resources and budget with the things that truly help your company meet the targets and goals at hand.

Even if you think your ROI is obvious, think again. Ask yourself if the typical ROI normally associated with your team’s work is truly linked to the things that matter at this point in time. Don’t assume that certain metrics and ROI that were important at your company a year, a quarter, a month ago, are exactly the same ones that matter the most at this very moment. To the degree you can, align to the things that matter right now.

Highlight the value of simplicity

During times of economic challenge, people tend to go “back to basics” and take a hard look at what the “nice-to-haves” are versus the essentials, cutting back on the “nice-to-haves.” Make sure you proactively do this, so that you won’t be left stunned when you’re asked to do it. Create a plan for areas you’re prepared to cut back on or retool if needed. Now is the time to take a figurative “Marie Kondo” look of your work and your team’s. What are the true essentials?

For example, can you cut program spend by 30% by eliminating a certain type of content entirely from your work? Take a close look at what percentage of work gives you the highest leverage and value. What work that you do would have horrible consequences for the company if it were eliminated, versus areas that would have minimal impact? While we tend to think all of what we do matters, the reality is that not everything matters equally, and certainly not in every circumstance. This is why you need to keep a close ear to the ground, and up to the airwaves, to really make sure you are tuned into the higher-level conversations happening.

For example, does your company intend to keep growing next year, but with less investment? Focus on boosting productivity and efficiency for the things that matter most and the metrics that are most important. Does your company need to keep revenue growth moving upward, but hiring half the people? Do calculations to figure out how this might be possible within the scope of your work.

Look at the opportunity to improve the “boring” stuff

Often, when times get tough economically, this is when the people who are good at the “boring” process stuff can really shine and move from unsung hero status to star. To find efficiencies, take a look at some of the processes you have in place today associated with the highest value. How can you speed those up, or enable them to deliver more, with less? There are always hidden gems in the places that people don’t usually think to look to boost efficiency.

Usually, these opportunities to improve operations and process are buried a few levels down from where executives sit, but can make a tangible improvement to core metrics for a company, and even their top-line revenue. The answers might not sit with the usual suspects who are at the table for when the “big” conversations happen. These answers tend to sit with a team or a person you would never expect, who could double your output, help you to automate something simple, or otherwise find untapped gold sitting deep somewhere within the veins of your company.

Take advantage of the short-lived opportunity

You’ve probably heard many business leaders talk about how every crisis is also an opportunity. This advice is often issued in hindsight, and I’ll admit, can be rather annoying to hear while you’re in crisis mode and things feel overwhelming. But there is merit in looking at any sort of challenge this way in business, especially when the challenges seem to be more macro in nature, highly complex, and outside of any one person, group, or economy’s own control.

The reality is that most economic downturns don’t last all that long when you put them in the context of the life of a business. There are certain positive things that happen when resources become scarce, and one of them is that the best leaders rally their companies to get much more creative with how they use those resources.

Simply reducing resources during challenging times is the simplistic, and very temporary solution. Anyone can remove dollars and headcount on a spreadsheet. That’s the easy and logical way to solve things in the short term, but doing this can create downstream and long-term disadvantages for a business. Applying resources differently is harder, but is far more powerful, because it can create sustainable advantage for a business in the long term.

Often, challenging times can serve as a wake-up call, an opportunity to redirect or zero in on what matters most. If you can leverage challenging times to encourage teams to focus, rethink, and get creative about how you do what you do, you’ll unleash a lot of positive thinking and foster a team spirit of people who are likely already eager to pitch in and help your company. Use it as a rallying cry! Get your team focused on controlling the things within their scope of influence, which can actually drive significant impact. If nothing else, focusing on specific things you can control always makes things feel less overwhelming.

It can also simply help to remind people that yes, while times are uncertain and the political and economic news can seem daunting, the world is a complex place, with ups and downs, highs and lows, and while it’s never fun to be in these types of lows, these turnings of the tide are actually the natural rhythm of life and business, and things eventually do swing back around. So, it’s always in our best interest to simply make the best we can of the situation at hand.

Nataly Kelly

Nataly leads localization at HubSpot and has previously held diverse roles in marketing, international operations and strategy, research, and product development. Her latest book is "Found in Translation" (Penguin). She writes for Harvard Business Review on topics of international marketing and global business. Nataly works remotely from New England, having lived in Quito (Ecuador), Donegal (Ireland) and the rural Midwest where she grew up.

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