Leading a business through crisis and uncertainty

“Any business person, particularly someone who’s kicked around as long as I, that says they haven’t had a crisis is being a bit economical with the truth!” says Bernadette Eriksen, founder and CEO of Flavour Creations. “You need to be agile, and ready to respond to changes.”

This month, Sarah-Jane interviewed Bernadette to discuss practical tips and principles for leading a business through crisis and uncertainty. For 23 years, Bernadette has successfully led her ground- breaking dysphagia and nutrition company, currently employing around 100 staff.

“With any crisis, the key is to remain calm, gather the facts, pull the crisis team together, and put an action plan into place.” says Bernadette.

“We were very early movers [in responding to COVID-19]. The leadership team got together and conducted a risk assessment. We prepared for the worst, and acted quickly and decisively to make adjustments.”

“We put in temperature checks right away, and that alarmed a few of the team members at first, but I just called it out.” says Bernadette. “We have this pandemic upon us. We don’t know what that’s going to look like, but we know that this is highly contagious. We need to be vigilant and stay safe and keep each other safe. We need to put steps in place to do that.”

Bernadette said a lot of her team members thought she was ‘mad’ for acting so quickly to implement increased safety measures, but as the pandemic spread throughout the globe, the actions taken by Bernadette and her leadership team helped to engender trust.

“They know that we genuinely have their best interest at heart. We can’t be as efficient because we’re losing time with our disinfecting runs, and we are spending a fortune on additional chemicals and personal protective equipment for the team, but it’s worth it. They know they can come here and feel safe.”

Bernadette acted quickly to protect her business operations from supply chain impacts due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One of the first decisions we made was making sure we had adequate stock holdings. A lot of our raw materials aren’t manufactured in Australia, so we started building our stock holdings of finished goods to about 12 weeks, just in preparation.”

“The whole situation for us was very real, especially because we service vulnerable people in hospitals and residential aged care facilities. Our business development managers regularly visit these sites so decisions needed to be made to protect our staff and the community.”

“In early February we stopped our staff going on-site to hospitals and the residential aged care facilities dictated what service level they required form us. We didn’t want staff to be unnecessarily exposed to potential COVID-19 patients at hospital sites, and we couldn’t risk having a staff member entering a residential aged care facility and unknowingly being a carrier or spreader of the virus. We stopped that very quickly.”

Bernadette’s key to successfully navigating through uncertainty was to continually revisit business and action plans. “Keep checking the plan. Is it on track? Do we have to adjust it? Where do we need to tweak it? Do we have to say, well, the plan actually is wrong, and we’ve got to go back and do a whole new plan?”

“Know your business, know your people, and keep applying innovative thinking to what’s going on” says Bernadette. “We have a process improvement meeting every fortnight [where] we discuss how we can do things better. Having a cross functional team is really important to that process, because they are all looking at things with different lenses. It is also important to create an environment where people feel safe and comfortable to voice their ideas.”

“The innovation process needs to be well structured, but you’ve also got to make sure within that structure you allow room for those crazy left field ideas to germinate and grow. I think we’ve done very well at Flavour Creations.”

Maintaining clear and effective communication and developing “workarounds”, is essential throughout a crisis. Flavour Creations adjusted existing processes to align with COVID-19 restrictions. By increasing shift change-over processes and allowing more time for hand-over between crews in the manufacturing plant, “staff could do a handover where there’s zero contact and a full sanitisation”. This practical solution was also supported by “toolbox talks, a tv monitor in the lunchroom with business updates, photos and other things that are happening around the place”.

Implementing changes within a crisis, can also create new challenges. For Flavour Creations, social distancing measures forced them to stop holding their regular monthly team meetings. Adding additional challenges when facilitating communications with team members.

To keep the broader business engaged Bernadette asked staff to send a picture of themselves and their pet. Using the TV in the lunch room, these images would be broadcast on the monitor. “That’s what bring people closer together. All those little things matter more than the big things”. 

The current COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all industries, sectors, businesses, and financial markets globally. This should be viewed as an opportunity. It has forced people and businesses to work remotely that would never had considered it a possibility. It has recreated business models, taken existing products and repurposed them. Many businesses have adapted, and some have used this opportunity to innovate, disrupt their own business and identify new revenue streams which were previously not considered such as 3D printing face masks for hospitals, or Bundaberg Rum making hand sanitiser.

In business sometimes tough lessons are learnt, but Bernadette believes that times of crisis always bring a silver lining:

“There’s always a silver lining. If you can’t see the silver lining, well, the silver lining might be you just gained some education. Education isn’t free. You can use the power of what went wrong, and whatever it cost you, to make sure things get better across the board. That’s your silver lining.”

“Stay true to your purpose.” says Bernadette. “Bad things happen. We all make mistakes. Remember not to take it personally. It is not about you; it is about behaviours. We have the power to change our behaviours. Keep going back to your purpose. Remember why you are there in the first place, doing what you are doing. Stick to your guns on that, because when you do that it becomes easier to bring people on the journey with you.”

“Don’t let the noise overtake the big picture. Stay true to what you are trying to achieve, and enjoy the journey of getting there!”


This article was brought to you by Sunshine Women in Business

ATech is pleased to be delivering the Sunshine Women in Business program, proudly supported, and funded by the Queensland Government. Intended to support Women in, or those starting a Business throughout Queensland, the program will deliver throughout 2020, a range of educational content, resources, events and provide the opportunity for five people to gain access to professional mentoring.