Commentary: Don’t fear the recovery — Here are 9 tips to guide your fleet through whatever shape it takes

“At times [the Great Recession] was scary, but instead of being paralyzed by fear, we used it to sharpen our focus.” Richard Stocking, now head of DPX Consulting, leans on experiences in running the country’s largest truckload fleet in advising carriers how to ride out the current economic storm.“At times [the Great Recession] was scary, but instead of being paralyzed by fear, we used it to sharpen our focus.” Richard Stocking, now head of DPX Consulting, leans on experiences in running the country’s largest truckload fleet in advising carriers how to ride out the current economic storm.Will the ongoing economic recovery be a U-shape, a V-shape, an L-shape, a W-shape, a Nike Swoosh?

Yes. All of the above. But that’s really the wrong question. Instead of asking what the recovery will look like for the overall economy, you should be asking, “What will the recovery look like for my business?” and “How will I adapt?”

Some say we’re all in the same boat with the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Not true. We’re all in the same storm, but not in the same boat. Amazon and UPS are doing great right now; clothing retailers are not. Same storm, different boats.

It’s easy to forget that recessionary cycles are a normal part of business. This is the fourth recession of my career.

As the saying goes — change is the only constant in life. This obviously applies to business too. If it’s not the economy that’s changing, it’s consumer preferences, employee preferences, technology, the competition or regulations.

Beware of thinking we’re going through something unprecedented. This specific coronavirus pandemic has never happened before, but big shocks to the economy certainly have.

Instead of viewing the current challenges as problems, view them as opportunities.

For instance, take this quote from American solider and CIA agent George Bacon:

“Fortunes are not made in the boom times…That is merely the collection period. Fortunes are made in depressions or lean times when the wise man overhauls his mind, his methods, his resources and gets in training for the race to come.”

Likewise, Rahm Emanuel famously said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste….It’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.” And he’s right.

I vividly remember leading a company through the Great Recession. At times it was scary, but instead of being paralyzed by fear, we used it to sharpen our focus. It became a “burning platform” that pushed us to do things we’d never done before. Looking back now, I have fond memories of that time and the friendships that were forged under intense pressure. And, the results of the ensuing years were the fruits of the seeds planted during that time. The recession was one of the best things that ever happened to us.

Here’s my advice for navigating the current recession and recovery — no matter what shape it takes:

Don’t be paralyzed by fear. Focus on what you can control and what you can influence. Worrying about things you can’t control and regretting things you should have done to prepare won’t help. If you can’t stop thinking about those things, try writing them down in a journal followed by a list of all the things you can control and influence that you should be focused on.

Use your team. You don’t have to carry this heavy load on your own. Gather your team, review the data, and ask the tough questions. Make it safe for the team to explore new ideas and be candid about problems. Do we persevere on the current course, or do we pivot?

Explore multiple scenarios. What will we do if the recovery is a V shape? What if it’s an L shape? Instead of taking a “wait and see” approach, consider setting up “tripwires” where you decide in advance to take a specific action if a specific event occurs.

Consider multiple solutions. Don’t settle for the first thing that comes to mind. Challenge your team to brainstorm at least 3 different ways to respond to a problem/opportunity. Ask your team to write their ideas down on paper before discussing any ideas as a group. Categorize each idea on a 2×2 matrix with the potential impact on one axis and the expected effort on the other.

Put it in writing. There’s something magic about seeing your ideas and reasoning on paper. I like printing out all the reports and spreading them out on a big table or taping them to the wall. When brainstorming, write your ideas on sticky notes with markers. As a story develops, force yourself to put it in writing on a single piece of paper. I recommend using an 11”x17” sheet of paper and writing down the problem on the left side of the page and the solution on the right side of the page.

Use a RAIL. RAIL stands for Rolling Action Item Log. It’s basically just a to-do list in a spreadsheet that is reviewed in every meeting. Each action item should be assigned to someone in the room, have a due date, and a specific action. “Bob needs to share a list of ideas for cutting $100k of costs at our next meeting” is much more effective than “Bob needs to work on cutting costs.”

Over-communicate and stay positive. Talk straight with your team about the current state of the business. Provide frequent updates. Constantly communicate optimism and hope and belief.  Be a fountain of energy, not a drain. The tone you set in every interaction will be amplified by your team.

Stay flexible. In complex uncertain times, plans should be written with pencils, not pens. Be decisive and give your team forward momentum, while simultaneously keeping the door open to change course if necessary. You want to be like the head coach of a football team who goes into a game with a plan but willingly adapts it to what happens during the game and what’s working and not working.

Look where you want go. When I was learning to ride a motorcycle, I was taught this phrase: “You go where you look.”  I’ve found this is true in life and in business too. When you’re on a Harley-Davidson taking a hairpin turn on a mountain road without guardrails, look to where you want to go. Successfully navigating the twists and turns and ups and downs of this pandemic and recession will require the same skills. Take an occasional quick glance at your tachometer, fuel gauge, rearview mirror and map, but spend most of your time and energy focused on navigating what’s immediately ahead of you. And don’t forget to enjoy the ride.

Richard Stocking is the founder and CEO of DPX Consulting, a transportation consulting firm that helps fleets with strategic operational improvements and M&A activity.  Prior to founding DPX Consulting, he enjoyed a 27-year career with Swift Transportation that began as an entry-level customer service representative and worked through various roles in sales and operations throughout the United States before becoming president and CEO.  At the time of his departure, Swift Transportation had grown into the largest truckload carrier in North America with 18,000 trucks, 60,000 trailers, and $4.5 billion in annual revenues servicing the US, Mexico and Canada.