With optimism amongst mid-sized businesses reported to be increasing, our Managing Director, Rachel Bevans, spoke to a group of leaders to understand what’s driving this. Purpose, planning, values, engagement and innovation are five key areas helping mid-sized businesses navigate uncertainty. This article was written for First 5000 where it was first published on 15th June 2021.
Organisations are facing both opportunities and challenges
On the one hand, Covid has created new opportunities with more people staying at home and working from home, and local customers turning to local manufacturers for production. On the other, with borders closed, it has been difficult to serve existing and find new customers in international markets, to obtain raw materials and supplies, and many industries are reporting a talent shortage.
Whilst JobKeeper has ended, there are other government-led initiatives that are helping such as apprenticeship programmes for trades and the Dine & Discover programme for hospitality. But there is also a concern that we have to pay back what was borrowed during Covid, which will see a limitation in government run programmes in the future.
Low interest rates create opportunities for businesses to borrow yet businesses are facing challenges to access finance. And at a macro level, low interest rates mean that economic growth is not going to be strong.
Leaders who are naturally optimistic and in industries and businesses that have performed well through Covid, are also conscious that other businesses have struggled and are aware of the impacts on many individuals, be they employees or people in their networks and communities.
Leaders are creating certainty to manage uncertainty
To manage uncertainty, leaders create certainty in their organisation through their vision, mission and/or purpose, strategy and planning, balancing innovation, risk and sustainability, living the values and stakeholder engagement.
Vision, mission and/or purpose
Common to many businesses, these terms are used interchangeably, however the existence of a clearly articulated vision, mission or purpose is a success factor. It provides inspiration and a general direction to work towards, and guides decisions about what the business does and doesn’t do.
“One of the most important things is to articulate the singular company vision. You need to be able to empower divisional leaders to have autonomy and decision-making to work towards that vision.”
“On review of our purpose, they weren’t core businesses. By simplifying the strategy, we were able to have a clear purpose, a much clearer brand was taken to the market, we could describe the value proposition… the bulk of the revenue came from having a clear purpose and hiring good people”
Strategy and planning
In a 2017 study by the Australian Government Department of Industry, Innovation and Science (DOI) found that “only a third of mid-sized businesses have a written strategic plan for their future”. 
On the contrary, leaders we spoke with believed their strategic planning was a key reason for their success because it gave them the roadmap to follow and focus, whilst having the flexibility to adapt when things change.
“Strategic plans keep you focussed, they put you on a path, but things change and you have to change with it”.
“We define a strategic roadmap where we want to be in the next 5 years…invest and commit for the first 12 months, then you review: are you on track, have things changed, what are we going to do for the next 12 months?”
“Why we survived, put up with all this change, mainly because we always have plan b ready, we can switch on the plan b if nothing happens”
Innovation, risk and sustainability
These leaders were also conscious that they don’t rest on their laurels, balancing risk and the need to find the next growth opportunity – new customer trends, new technologies, new markets, mergers and acquisitions – along with increasing sustainability.
“Identifying what the next generation might be”
“We have an innovation hopper of where the products, market might be going”
“We’re willing to take risks, budgeted not massive risks, we do the due diligence, and the business can wear failure”
“We’re a healthy company, we can take a risk… it’s OK if we stuff it up and made the business case but it didn’t work, we promote entrepreneurship”
“Customers are now pushing down. By reducing your carbon footprint, it might cost a bit but it actually improves the manufacturing process”
“We work with our customers. Every tender asks for sustainability. 10 years ago the tender question was to tick a box, now they’re genuinely interested in what we can do better:”
“Two phases of growth – organic and acquisition, you should be open to both if you want to grow the business”
Living the values
Culture and values when led by leaders and lived by employees provide consistency for the working environment and how people behave. They help attract and retain good people who work with you through good times and bad.
“It’s all about culture. Good people will come to you, stick with you forever and will impart knowledge into the business for the future.”
“There’s a commitment from management, we set an example, how we speak to people, how we conduct ourselves in the business.”
“Culture, values need to be pushed from the top – if they’re not holding the values, it causes issues with people, he doesn’t do that, why should I.”
Transparency helps people manage uncertainty. The leaders were all well aware of keeping employees, the board and customers up-to-date with the latest information and changes.
“Management always know what’s happening with real-time data, shareholders, the board, so we’re in track with people, internal stakeholders all the time.”
“We have an open communication culture, from the shopfloor to the MD, you can write emails and approach anyone.”
“We involve our staff in everything. If things change or something’s coming up, we’ll start communicating about it, gather momentum, create interest so people can start talking about it. We keep people up to speed, especially during Covid.”
“We communicate very well results with staff, we have a huddle where the CEO shows the scorecard.”
As mid-sized business leaders look to the future with cautious optimism, they’re prepared and raring to go. How do you navigate uncertainty to keep moving forward?
 Mark Cully, Chief Economist, Australian Government Department of Industry, Innovation & Science, “Stuck in the middle? Mid-sized enterprises in the Australian economy”, September 2017
About Rachel Bevans
Rachel Bevans is strategist, researcher and business director, with over 28 years’ experience helping organisations become brand-driven, customer-centric and employee-engaged. Rachel founded The Healthy Brand Company in 2012 to unite her brand experience, passion for health and wellbeing and curiosity about what motivates people.