"What the coronavirus has taught me about company culture"

The coronavirus hit us hard. Very hard. With MatcHR we provide sourcing and recruitment support on a subscription-based model for our clients across the globe. Almost overnight the majority of our clients stopped hiring and ended our cooperation. This is how I navigated my start-up through a time of crisis.

Adriaan Kolff on July 28, 2020 Average reading time: 3 min
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What at the beginning of 2020 had looked like another year of steep growth quickly turned into ‘survival mode’. In order for us to save our business and ensure free cash flow we had to take drastic action. We were forced to let go of more than 50% of our employees in one week. Despite all this hardship this crisis has taught me valuable lessons about company culture and how to navigate in times of crisis which I would like to share.

A winning culture

When I started MatcHR almost two years ago I asked several successful entrepreneurs and business leaders how they build a strong and winning culture. There was one particular comment that stood out. Margot Scheltema, a seasoned global business leader, told me: “Your true company culture will show its strength or weakness when your business is under pressure and things get tough.”

“Your true company culture will show its strength or weakness when your business is under pressure and things get tough.”

The reason I was so interested in building a strong culture is that I experienced what a ‘bad’ and toxic culture does with the moral of your employees at one of my previous companies. The culture of that particular company can best be described as one ruled by fear and lack of transparency. When the business went south ‘we’ decided not to share any financial details of our worsening situation. The hypothesis was that this would only create panic and could result in key employees leaving our company (which they were doing anyway).

After months of pretending that everything was going to be fine, we took our employees by complete surprise when we told them we had to fire several people and weren’t even sure whether we would survive. It destroyed any kind of trust that was left in our leadership and created a lot of stress for everyone.

Trust and transparency 

With my previous experience in mind, my co-founder Maarten and I therefore founded our company on the values “trust” and “transparency”. We made the commitment to each other to be open in feedback to each other and to openly share the highs and the lows with our employees as well. Since the start 1,5 years ago we have a monthly update with our employees to share our financials including cashflow, business update and answer all questions that people might have.

In two weeks’ time we lost 70% of our turnover.

When the coronavirus started to impact our business more and more, our employees worked even harder because they knew what was at stake. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. In two weeks’ time we lost 70% of our turnover. The pain being that many of our clients highlighted that the cooperation will be resumed in the future but with so much uncertainty had no idea when…

This forced us to take drastic actions and fire over 50% of our employees in one week.

An unimaginable scenario 

People that did everything in their power to get results in for our clients only to see all of their efforts being erased by the coronavirus. People that we cared deeply about, people that we had to let go in a market full of uncertainty, people with families at home and rent to pay…

However, what I had not experienced before is that despite the nature of my message my employees started to comfort me (!).

Since we were working from home everybody knew what my message was when I asked them if they were available for a call. I had learned from previous experiences to immediately tell my message and not to linger. However, what I had not experienced before is that despite the nature of my message my employees started to comfort me (!). Not only did they understand that we had to take these steps, but everybody thanked me for their time at MatcHR and that they were more worried about me and MatcHR than about their own future. This time it was me taken by surprise and deeply touched by their reactions…

The true culture

On the same day that we had to fire the majority of our people we had an update call with everybody in the company via Zoom to share the news. Little did I know that minutes before the call my employees had agreed to wear our company t-shirt as a sign of support to one another and to me and my co-founder Maarten. It was heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time and a moment I will never forget.

I have learned and experienced first-hand that a culture where you are open and vulnerable pays off during a time of hardship.

Now, a few days later I can only confirm the lesson that Margot told me that the true nature of a company’s culture does come out when it gets tough. I have learned and experienced first-hand that a culture where you are open and vulnerable pays off during a time of hardship. Everybody reads the news, the majority is afraid of what is going to happen in terms of their health, family and job. By not communicating about what impact the coronavirus has on your business and team, you add to this fear.

In the way we understood what COVID-19 did to our clients, our employees understood what it meant to our business and also why we had to make these decisions.

Biggest lessons

My biggest lessons learned during these last weeks are the following:

  • Over communicate and be as open and transparent as you can be.
  • Answer any questions or concerns your employees or team members might have and dare to address their fears and worries directly, even if they don’t ask you.
  • Refrain from falling into the trap of making promises you can’t keep.
  • Tell the truth and don’t sugarcoat it.

If you follow these principles you will not only be a better leader but also a human that is going through the same uncertainty as everyone else but someone that your employees can trust. I am humbled and proud of the reactions I received. Despite that we are still in the middle of this crisis, these last weeks have made me confident that we will get through this period and will come out even stronger. For everybody who is impacted by this crisis stay strong, focus on what you can influence, stay healthy and be as open and transparent as you can…

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Adriaan Kolff

Adriaan Kolff

Guest Author at ToTalent
Co-founder of MatcHR, investor, entrepreneur. Obsessed with (team) culture and recruitment. Four time Burning Man 🔥 attendee and Ironman 🏊🚴‍♂️🏃.
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