COVID-19 has disrupted all of our lives. It’s made us reevaluate our priorities and rethink everything. This has especially been the case for businesses. We reached out to local experts to learn not only how their industry has been affected by COVID, but also how they have adapted in a year filled with a global pandemic, political and social upheaval, and more.

By Joanna Kresge, Maria Leuzinger, Madison Miller, Kara Patajo, Blake Peterson, and John Stearns 

Illustrations by Alex Schloer


HELPING LEADERS LEAD

Courtesy of McKenna

Good leaders are authentic, they care about their people, and they’re focused on growing people, according to executive coach Amy McKenna. McKenna is the founder and CEO of Bellevue-based HumanPoint and has spent thousands of hours with leaders from companies of all sizes, helping them achieve their highest potential.

The company, founded in 2007, comprises six women with expertise in myriad areas to best match coach and leader.

We reached out to McKenna to share, in her own words, her top three tips for becoming a better leader. — JS

Be Authentic

Who are you, and what were you put on this Earth to do? The way that I work with leaders to figure out who they are authentically is to … become introspective about what leadership means to them: What are their values? What are their strengths? By defining who they are as a leader, they can show up more intentionally.

Care

What are ways that we can show that we care? I think it’s mostly in the day-to-day interaction. It’s communicating with empathy. It’s listening. It’s allowing people to share how they feel. It’s meeting people where they are, switching our leadership style to really match them with communication and approach. But it’s really just those little incremental things that we can do each time we interact that show the person (we care about them).

Grow People

I truly believe that leaders who are tuned in realize that their responsibility is not just to grow the business, but to grow the people. We only grow our business when we grow people. There’s this concept called the Pygmalion effect — essentially it is that people will rise to the level of expectation that their leader puts forth for them. I see this used the wrong way a lot, like leaders telling me everything wrong with a person. I believe that if we start to look for the strengths in an individual, and then we start to point those out to them and tell them, “I see more potential in you; I see that you have unlimited potential, and I think that you can grow to here,” and setting a vision for what’s possible in their life, that individuals will grow beyond their own level of expectation.


KNOW YOUR WHY FOR DIVERSITY, EQUITY, AND INCLUSION

Dr. Caprice Hollins co-founded Renton-based Cultures Connecting 13 years ago and has since helped grow the business to include a team of four Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) consultants to support area organizations’ efforts to become more equitable workplaces.

The arrival of COVID-19 presented a unique challenge for Cultures Connecting, as Hollins said she always believed facilitating conversations around racism should be done in the same room, face-to-face. “We couldn’t stop doing what we deeply believed in because things had changed (due to COVID restrictions). Racism hadn’t gone away, and we knew we couldn’t, either,” she said of the need to transition to a virtual model.

Then, on May 25, the world watched as Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck. “I didn’t watch; I couldn’t take any more in. I didn’t have the emotional capacity. But it did strengthen my commitment to racial and social justice,” Hollins said.

“Our phones were ringing off the hook; it felt like drinking from a fire hose,” Hollins said of the following days and weeks, noting that predominately white callers specifically referenced George Floyd as the reason for their inquiries. “White people were looking at what happened to George Floyd as an event, and one that a training would solve. The murder of Black and Brown people didn’t begin on May 25, nor with the killing of Trayvon Martin — provoking Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi to begin the Black Lives Matter movement.”

This prompted Hollins to ask herself, “Did leaders realize change would require so much more?” While she is quick to point out that racism is embedded in the foundation of our nation, Hollins said she wanted to share some actions business owners, leaders, and managers can take to begin addressing racism within their companies. — JK

Courtesy of Caprice Hollins

Invest in Your Learning

Two, four, or six hours of training a year won’t be enough to deconstruct how we’ve been socialized and reconstruct a new way of being. It is an ongoing effort that requires a lifelong commitment to learning. Read books, listen to podcasts, watch documentaries, engage in conversations with people you know about their understanding of racism. Hunger for more self-awareness and knowledge. Learn about bias, privilege, microaggressions, the immigrant experience, White fragility, and more.

Lead with Humility

Rather than waiting before you have all the answers — which you never will; no one does — or until you know exactly what to say so you don’t offend, accept that making mistakes is a part of everyone’s learning journey. A culturally responsive leader models the work by taking risks and acknowledging they are active learners. Instead of deflecting or minimizing their mistakes, they admit to them and work hard to improve the next time.

Show Your Care

Check in with your staff of color. Find out how your business is doing with equitable practices. Learn about the experiences of POC. What is it like for POC to work for you? Do they feel welcome and included? Are their voices a part of the decision-making process? Do they feel supported? Are there things that you could be doing differently? Listening sessions are a great way to assess (this).

No One is Colorblind

Rather than approach this work from a belief that you are colorblind, do the harder work of noticing differences, and see those differences as positive. Take the Harvard Implicit Association Test online to deepen your understanding of where you have bias.

A Common Goal

Establish an equity team devised of a group of people who hold different roles within your organization and who will bring diverse experiences and perspectives to the conversation. Charge them with leading diversity efforts within your organization. … Pay them for taking on the additional work. Visit our website for more about equity teams.

Change Your Language

Look at your mission statement, website, job descriptions, policies, and other written documents for culturally inclusive language. Wherever it is lacking, make changes. Create a diversity statement pledging your commitment to equity and inclusion.

Know Your ‘Why’

(This work) will require that you know your “why” for diversity, equity, and inclusion. DEI work is not easy; it is intentional work that requires daily practice. It will become harder before it gets easier. There will be times when tension is high, mistakes will be made, people will doubt your commitment, and even the need for this work. … There is no manual for how to do this work. Let what happened to George Floyd be a wake-up call, but don’t go back to sleep. There is too much work to be done, and it’s going to take us working together.


CYBERSECURITY AND THE WORKPLACE: PROTECTING BUSINESS AND EMPOWERING EMPLOYEES

Courtesy of Marc Dupuis

Many know the common ways to strengthen cybersecurity, such as having multiple backups of important files, changing passwords frequently, and using anti-malware software. But businesses still struggle with tackling cybersecurity as a team. Marc J. Dupuis, an assistant professor at UW Bothell, shares five things that can be done to empower employees so that everyone can be in this together. — JK

1. Help employees be successful in following policy, such as providing a password manager so they can easily use a long and complex password that is unique for each system that requires one.

2. Phishing exercises should not be adversarial, punitive, or embarrassing for the employees. Instead, provide a system where there is a subject matter expert for phishing emails that employees should notify about possibly suspicious emails. Feedback should be given on whether it was a phishing email or not, and employees should be praised for their vigilance either way.

3. Avoid single points of failure. It hurts both the employees and the organization. For example, a single employee might be the cause of ransomware infecting the organization’s systems, but the organization itself should have multiple validated backup copies of all important files, including at least one of those copies off-site.

4. Be flexible with work schedules and work hours, and minimize meetings. Many individuals are working from home and balancing their personal lives with their work obligations. When employees are distracted by having too many different things compete for their attention, mistakes are more likely to happen, including security mistakes. If an email will suffice, then send an email rather than scheduling a meeting.

5. Avoid using fear and shame in trying to engender policy compliance. It doesn’t work in the long term, and it does build resentment and distrust.


ADAPTING TO AN UNPREDICTABLE FUTURE

Courtesy of Joe Fain

COVID-19 has taken a devastating toll on everything, especially businesses. Over the past year, businesses have repeatedly adapted to the pandemic’s unpredictable path. Joe Fain, president and CEO of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce, shares how businesses acclimated to COVID-19 as well as what might happen going forward. — ML

Businesses had to adapt quickly to COVID-19. What worked best? What could have been improved?

Failing fast worked best. Dramatic shifts in consumer demand and regulatory environment coupled with an uncertain economic future is a tough time to make big change. Those who did were able to adapt and survive. Waiting for your old business model to come back into style turned out to be deadly for many companies. Those who weren’t afraid to test out new products or services, learn from their failures, and move on quickly were rewarded.

Has becoming more flexible during the pandemic also prepared businesses to face other unexpected, future challenges?

Flexibility is the new black. Customers want it, and employees are demanding it. Home delivery, overnight shipping, online fulfillment, fully automated customer experiences, and technology-heavy solutions are dominating the retail and service sectors. The biggest challenge for white-collar businesses will be in how their managers adapt to the new expectation of flexibility. The in-office 9-to-5 model is now dead for a lot of industries. In the past, this captive environment allowed managers to be less organized with how they use their employees’ time. As we return to the office in greater numbers, “face-time” will continue to be at a premium. The haphazard afternoon gaggle will be replaced with more efficiently planned in-person meetings. Employees will be less forgiving of “meetings that should be emails.”

Do you believe any of these changes are likely to stick around once the pandemic has subsided?

Many of the changes we’ve seen through the pandemic were headed our way already. Successful companies will become masters of the hybrid model. Universal remote work had its own complexities in measuring output and worker morale. Hybrid work could open the door wider on perceived inequities in the workplace and will present a significant test of team cohesion.


FROM RECESSION TO PANDEMIC: INSIGHTS FROM ONE SMALL-BUSINESS OWNER TO ANOTHER

Courtesy of Patricia Markevitch and Alicia Rodriguez

It’s hard to believe any businesses could open during a pandemic and thrive. But it’s entirely possible. Looking to the past, there were many businesses that opened during the Great Recession and have lived to tell the tale. We reached out to Patricia Markevitch, partner-owner of Alicia Peru — a fair trade premium alpaca knit and outerwear company in Bellevue — to share her experience of opening a business during an economic crisis and her advice to others considering opening a business during COVID-19. — KP

What lessons did you learn from starting a business during a recession that you would pass on to entrepreneurs just getting started with their business today?

Everything is cyclical. What may go down goes up, and what may go up goes down. So, it’s kind of better to be in the middle. Fiscally speaking, always try to plan for a rainy day and not always think that everything is going to be a booming market. But, at the same time, look for the silver lining there — sunnier days will come.

What are common misconceptions about starting a small business or owning a small business?

That it’s charming; that it is very Norman Rockwell-esque. People think, “Oh, you have a little shop on the street, and you sell things. How quaint, how lovely!” It’s a bit romanticized, I think, at least from a boutique perspective.

Another one is that you are your own boss. You are not a corporate soldier, but there are a lot of things that are out of your control — especially with what happened last year. I had no idea we’d be shut down for three months, and that was completely out of my hands. Even if you’re a small business, you go through those constraints — finances, supply chain issues. Maybe they’re not as large as corporations, but you all suffer the same glut. You are your own boss, but you are at the mercy of many other factors, like state mandates and consumer sentiment that spiraled downward.


REIMAGINING MARKETING IN UNPRECEDENTED TIMES

Courtesy of the Downtown Issaquah Association

Most small-business owners have had to rethink their business models over the last year. Roberta Fuhr, the owner of Issaquah’s Experience Tea, has weathered the pandemic with “patience, hope, and adaptability.” We caught up with Fuhr to talk more about some of the business and marketing strategies she has found successful in an unpredictable year. — BP

How did your marketing strategies pivot? What have been some of the biggest lessons learned in the process?

I had my website redesigned last June so that it was easy to use on all devices. I also added the option for people to order and pay online for local pick-up or curbside service.

I used Facebook and email newsletters to keep people posted regarding purchasing options, classes, and any changes to my business.

What advice would you give to other small businesses looking to improve their marketing efforts?

Look at your customer base, and determine how they found you: Is there more effort to add there? Do you connect with customers through email marketing? Hiring someone to do social media may be helpful: It allows the owner to focus on the quality of offerings and customers. Develop good relationships with customers — learn their names and spouses’ and children’s names. Keep a log of what a customer buys (Quickbooks does this for me) so that friends can easily buy them giſt s from your store. See if there is a way to offer classes around your products. People love to connect with friends and family for a fun event, and you can usually charge for the class, plus introduce many of your products.