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Never waste a crisis

This global crisis might be unlike anything we’ve seen before, but Mahlab’s founder, Bobbi Mahlab, says crises can be a catalyst for change.

This global crisis might be unlike anything we’ve seen before, but Mahlab’s founder, Bobbi Mahlab, says crises can be a catalyst for change. 

Mahlab is a 22-year-old content and communications agency, making it a business that survived the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. My most vivid memory of that period was the day our two biggest clients called to cancel all the work we were doing for them. As I drove home that afternoon, I hit a speed bump and nearly vomited. 

Today, as we deal with COVID-19, I am ironically grateful for the GFC and the experience it gave me of navigating a business through crisis. It was the best and the worst of experiences. The best, because our business came out of it with a new strategy that has contributed to its success for the last decade.

As the wrecking ball that is COVID-19 continues to swing globally, I am probing, and wondering what strategies and innovation will come out of it for us and for others. And as with the GFC, I know our business will emerge changed. I am thinking a lot about the quote adapted from Winston Churchill: “Never waste a crisis”.

Right now, Mahlab is being buffeted but not murdered by COVID-19. We are lucky not to be in the eye of the storm that is decimating travel, hospitality and retail. We are fortunate to be in a business whose purpose — to create content that helps people — is useful in times of trouble. 

So I am sharing my lessons of the GFC in the hope it too is helpful to others. 


Lesson One: Ask your clients, “How can we help you now?”

In the space of just three weeks, our business has already changed. The change is being driven by the question we are asking every day: “How can we help our clients?” 

This is a mantra among our team leaders that we are trying to drum into every corner of our agency. 

The focus of our work has shifted very quickly as we help more of our clients embrace digital and find new ways of doing things — from virtual events, to messaging strategies, to content that helps our clients help their customers and staff through this time. 

We are continually asking, “What can we start doing, stop doing, and share to help?”


Lesson Two: Look after your people. 

Equal to how we help our clients is making sure we look after our people, the Mahlabradors. Looking after our people is not only the human thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. We need to keep our talent, so that when COVID-19 clears, we can rise fast. 

We are adapting to virtual life like everyone else. For us, this means a daily all-company meeting, hilarious ‘quaran-trivia’ every Friday afternoon, weekly competitions on Slack, virtual tours of each other’s homes, and noticeably, meetings where parents have children on their laps. 

Our working parents are heroes; they are adapting to change, looking after their kids, and looking after their teams and our clients. We often talk in our business about walking in other people’s shoes — these parents are sharing their worlds with people whose daily life is different.  

Some of our colleagues are here from overseas; they are living alone and are a long way from family. This isolation echoes more loudly for them than it does for many of us. 

I quickly decamped from Sydney to my hometown of Melbourne, where I could gather my children and wider family, so we are close, even if we can’t physically mingle. 


Lesson Three: Seek counsel. Share your insights. 

For me, as the founder of Mahlab, behind how we navigate this crisis is my wise counsel; other business owners who lead with heart, and who like me, have navigated crises before. 

We talk. We ask, “What are you doing? How are you doing it?”. And we share our experiences and insights: what we hear from our staff that is making them cry; discovering people who live alone and allaying their fears about working from home; the discombobulated executives who can be calmed when IT visits their homes and sets up their workspace; the importance of delivering ergonomic chairs to people’s houses. We are also spending countless hours looking at cash flow projections and scenario planning and sometimes sleeping badly, but the human stories, and the small but impactful gestures, are what matters most.


Lesson Four: It’s an opportunity to change faster

An unexpected upside is the opportunity to speed up transformation projects we had already begun. We are changing the way our teams share, collaborate  and are structured to be more agile and we will do it faster now. 


Lesson Five: Look for the good.  

I am overwhelmed by the kindness, humour and grace I see around me. 

The rallying chat messages, shout-outs and words of support. The clients who could bluntly email bad news, but instead initiate meetings to share their challenges. Most of all, it’s the opportunity for empathy — to see into each other’s worlds and understand their circumstance. 

From experience, I know there is more tough stuff ahead, and people will get weary before this crisis ends. It is a marathon, not a sprint, and we need to be careful to pace ourselves. But I also know that crises can be a force for change and I have no doubt that amid the pain, this one will lead to innovative strategies in our business and, hopefully, well beyond. 

The most important task for all of us is to make sure we don’t waste this crisis — as a business, as a country or as a world. What this future will look like is yet to be discovered, but ultimately, it is the most important question we can ask.


First appeared in B&T.

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