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Lessons learnt from lockdown – How international business is evolving

6th May 2020

At the end of February I went to Abu Dhabi for the BSME conference, a great event which was supposed to be the highlight of our Q1 international business develop strategy. The conference never happened due to COVID-19 and I ended up in a lockdown situation at the hotel for 5 days. It was a rather surreal experience and one I hoped would never repeat.

Fast forward and here we are, all be it this time it has now been 6 weeks and counting. My team could have vanished, our international business could have ended and all of us could have been on our respective sofas watching daytime TV.

However, as Winston Churchill once said, ’Never let a good crisis go to waste.’

Yes we, like virtually every business out there has had to make some dramatic changes and accept that for some time to come, it’s not business as usual.

As a business owner I initially went through the usual initial emotion of woe is me. Head in hands, wondering what the hell we were going to do.

2 choices only. Shut up shop or fight. I fought.

On Tuesday 17th March we packed up the office and the team went our separate ways. I don’t like working from home. Too many distractions. I am simply not designed that way, or so I thought. I also didn’t know how the team would cope with working remotely when for so many years we have existed in a totally collaborative environment. My worry was that being forced to work from home could be very demotivating and this would be absolutely disastrous.

I don’t think my initial emotions are unique to me.

For the past 10 years we have worked exclusively overseas, supplying recruitment services across the EMEA and APAC regions. We rely on the global mobility of people and without this we have no business. So, a lockdown with no access to international travel isn’t exactly what we need. Not only did we have to look for alternative sources of revenue but also ensure the team remained intact.

We were now in unchartered waters and that paddle was no where to be seen.

However, Over the past 6 weeks I have noticed something quite remarkable. Due to this huge business critical issue, the culture that I was so desperate to achieve and couldn’t manage in an office environment is now flourishing. We are communicating, sharing ideas, asking opinions and being extremely productive. Roles have been clearly defined, no blurred lines and peer involvement is sky high.

We are still working purely on overseas contracts however the business is evolving, in line with lockdown. As people can no longer travel for work, we are having to bring work to them, in the form of online teaching.

Through proactive international business development, using our British embassy contacts and local DIT support, plus, a bit of luck, we have managed to pivot and open up new markets which are booming. It’s not been easy and I have no doubt that this is just the start, but at least we are trying our hardest and still being able to trade overseas.

So why on earth has it taken a pandemic of such epic proportions for this to occur?

I think it’s sheer complacency.

We take our international trade markets for granted, happy to exist and develop those relationships within our vertical. Yes, we may stray beyond this comfort zone but generally how far out are we actually willing to go? Now, we don’t have a choice. Fight or flight.

For us, this has meant creating a new international marketing strategy, looking at trends and then going after that business. Having a strong international business background plus the support of our DIT Trade Advisor has kept the motivation strong. Of course, maintaining and growing current relationships is also essential, those clients which maybe we didn’t spend as much time with are now top of the agenda. Best practice and market intel is being shared and this in turn is aiding good will.

Internally. engagement is up, we listen more and we are helping each other more. Not only are we developing new international trade sectors but our internal company culture is changing for the better too.

We motivate each other, keep spirits up, learn new skills and are better and stronger for it. There is certainly a ‘we are in it together mentality.’

This in turn aids mental health at a time where this could be severely tested.

Again, I don’t think we are alone in this and I hope as you are reading this you have done a few head nods.

New export markets can be borne out of a lockdown situation and strong bonds with employees and colleagues are also being formed due to this. We are having to collaborate, motivate, drive ideas and change. When we are all allowed to return to our office spaces we must ensure that this new culture continues.

In my opinion that is the (international business) silver lining out of this very difficult situation we find ourselves in.

I leave you with my favourite quote. I am sure you all know where it is from and I believe it sums up the mood of all those businesses that are doing whatever it takes to keep their team together, remain positive and look to brighter and better times.

“You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard ya hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!”

© Munir Mamujee, m2r education / munir@m2rglobal.com

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