What it Takes to Pivot

Get the Foundation in Place Before Crisis Strikes 
By Kathy Ryan

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything about running and managing resilient firms, it's that the ability to pivot should be a top priority moving forward. How quickly—and competitively—your firm can adjust matters when you’re in the middle of a serious situation. 

I know this from running my finance and accounting firm for more than two decades and having to shift gears on a few occasions. This time, fortunately, we could lean on our experiences from past economic downturns, as well as access real-time data through our cloud-based reporting system and a tighter understanding of how we operate as a team. Our ongoing focus on pragmatically using technology and our clearly defined culture paid dividends as we moved through the early days of COVID-19. 

These investments into our firm’s foundation allowed us to make just a few needed adjustments when the pandemic struck, and within two frenetic weeks we were good to go. The whirlwind experience reminded me how being “pivot ready” is essential. I suspect as well that being able to pivot quickly will continue to be a must long after 2020 is behind us. 

Creating a Stronger Foundation
In Silicon Valley, the term “pivot” is used for fast-moving companies’ constant need to adjust to changing customer expectations, competitive pressures and new innovations. It can be used as a guiding force for any firm wanting to set itself up to be more resilient. What follows is what worked for us at RoseRyan, an advisory firm I launched in 1993, and what I recommend.

Make solid connections. California’s reaction to the early days of the pandemic was swift, so we had to be, too. Bay Area counties declared shelter-in-place orders on March 16, and a statewide order soon followed. Calendar invites were immediately canceled or updated with Zoom links. Our finance and accounting professionals, accustomed to mostly working alongside clients’ finance teams as a distributed workforce, had to adjust to working completely remotely. 

As I look back, the flywheel for making this successful transition to working remotely during a time of unprecedented change was the connections we had built over time with each other and with our clients. Keeping in touch was already a regular habit, and the pandemic meant upping the frequency but not inventing a new tone. The relationships were there and already meaningful—staff and clients knew we were being genuine when we touched base with them.

Be prepared to communicate early and often. In March, every business was coping with rapid change amid huge uncertainty. Like you, we weren’t sure what we were allowed to do in our state and how our clients wanted to proceed, so our increased level of communication gave us a way to find out where everyone stood. 

Weekly check-ins during the first month provided insight into the kinds of change our clients were going through and what they were thinking. For our own workforce, we already had monthly business reviews with the CEO to keep everyone informed. And our quarterly company meetings became 100 percent remote and now include deliveries of goodies to make the meetings more interactive and add some levity. In these conversations, the leadership team is upfront about business changes and shares how we are coming together to meet the moment. 

Adopt a culture of change. Complacency is not part of our DNA since we’ve always been on our toes working with clients who are driving some of the globe’s most disruptive technologies. We embrace change as the only constant and have for decades. We invariably adopt change for three reasons: when something isn’t working, when we see that adapting is necessary or a better way of operating presents itself. 

After the 2009 recession, we used the time of economic recovery to transform our firm’s workplace by defining and establishing our culture. The project, which is still ongoing as we continue to pay attention to our culture, produced a set of core values (to be trustworthy, to excel, to advocate and to be a great team player). To fulfill them (which we call “TrEAT” for short), we have to walk the talk and hold each other accountable for living them every day. This shared purpose immeasurably boosted our ability to respond to crisis as a group. 

Whatever unites your team, make sure it’s in place before you need it—you can’t build an organizational or cultural framework during a time of upheaval. Once it’s established, your bedrock values will ground your firm and steady your team even if the landscape around you becomes disorienting. 

Have a clear understanding of the business. Before COVID-19 hit, we had started tracking the firm’s key performance indicators on a weekly basis. The KPIs are used by management to see how we’re doing as a whole, and ensures our staff understands what is expected of them. 

With real-time management software we put in place years ago (and spun off into its own SaaS company, Bizinta), we see where we stand in terms of forecasting, profitability and talent capacity. It’s given us the ability to complete timesheets every day—a shift we made early in the pandemic when we realized how useful it would be to have better, timelier information on our staff’s availability and our engagements. All this info is crucial, especially during periods of uncertainty and change. Without these guideposts and the secondhand nature of tracking this data so easily through one reporting system in the cloud, we would have been in the dark—or stressed-out scrambling to assemble the kind of info we needed to make sound decisions. 

Preparing to Pivot
One bright side of any crisis is what you can learn from it. You can hit the reset button on your firm to establish the foundational pieces for the next event that requires a pivot. 

When you have the trust and confidence of your staff and clients in place, they will move along with you. When you’re aligned around a defined and shared culture, it will steady your organization and team during crisis. When you have accurate information about your business, you can make the right decisions, faster. All of these moves require the commitment of time, energy and resources and, ideally, are done during times of stability. What’s your next move to get pivot-ready? 

Kathy Ryan is chair and founder of RoseRyan.