The most important thing a CEO can do right now is ask for help.

Now is not the time to worry about being self-sufficient. Smart leaders know that isolationism isn’t an effective strategy.

Asking for help doesn’t come naturally to many business leaders. “Will it show weakness? Will it look like I’m not up to the job?” the voice inside their head may say.

Even if a CEO does acknowledge that an outside viewpoint might help, how do they find the right person to provide it? While larger companies have boards to provide support, CEOs and founders of smaller businesses may lack a board or indeed any other support structure or network. This is where community becomes so important.

When Covid-19 struck, I was immediately involved in emergency meetings and scenario planning with the various organisations where I sit on the board or am employed as an advisor. However, I was really concerned about the smaller brands in my network.

Many were run by younger people with plenty of energy, initiative and fabulous ideas, but little or no experience of a challenge comparable to Covid.

I asked myself what I could do to help. In my career I have traded through recessions, shop bombings, warehouse floods and computer hacks. Until Covid hit I’d have said that there wasn’t much I hadn’t seen in my twenty years leading brands.

So, I reached out to a few businesses to ask if they’d like any advice – not consultancy for which they’d be billed by the hour, but free advice from someone genuinely worried about the future of businesses in the sector.

I found that every company I contacted was keen for assistance with scenario planning. I was pleased to be of help but wondered who else out there might also need a hand?

At this point I discovered that Jamie Mitchell – non executive chair of Gaucho-owner Rare Restaurants and former chief executive of Tom Dixon and Daylesford – was evidently thinking the same thing.

Jamie, however, had taken things a step further and was already setting up a volunteer mentoring service for SMEs across the UK consumer sector. I put my name forward straight away and All Together came into being soon after.

Four months later, All Together - which also counts Innocent chief executive Doug Lamont, ex-MD of Punch Taverns Paul Pavli, Cook founder Edward Perry and Jill Easterbrook, ex-MD of Boden as volunteers - has offered free and confidential advice to over 100 founders, CEOs, and business owners who have found themselves facing some of the toughest decisions of their careers.

The big challenges

For the most part, these were the same challenges that I had already come across in my own personal network. Cashflow and immediate crisis management were the first priorities. One founder was close to tears when he realised his business might only survive six weeks if nothing changed.

In this situation, it is important that leaders do not panic and freeze. Instead, it is vital to ask what can be done to help the business survive. What payments can be stopped, reduced or delayed? What help is available from the government and how do we access it?

Next come operations and people. How will the business function with many staff unable to get to their workplace? Can we ensure the safety of those staff who can be physically present? Can non-essential staff be furloughed?

This in turn leads to one of the most important decisions – what should the company continue to do, and what should it stop? The teams that fared best through this crisis were definitely the ones who quickly let go of what used to work, focussing instead on what would help them survive the new locked down world.

Communicating with customers and suppliers

Once brands knew where their cash was coming from and had figured out how to keep trading, thoughts turned to customers and suppliers. My main advice here was to communicate with both, and to explore how we could all support each other through the crisis.

An obvious example was how to market effectively to customers whose lives were in turmoil. Just sending out the same old emails or Facebook ads was not going to work; the winners would be those that really walked alongside their customers and helped them in their radically altered lives.

That might be a question of changing product focus (goodbye party dresses, hello lounge pants) or tone (a night on the town has suddenly become a cosy night in). The tone needs to be sympathetic and reassuring.

As a brand what can you do to help your customer get through the crisis? On the supply side, it’s important to check in with all parts of the supply and support chain, and to ask how everyone can share the pain equally.

Now is not the time to worry about being self-sufficient. Smart leaders know that isolationism isn’t an effective strategy at the best of times, but in the current crisis community has become more important than ever. If you’re a retail CEO or founder who hasn’t yet done so, then reach out to someone in your network or to All Together. I think you’ll be glad that you did.

Sally Bailey is a board Chair, NED and Mentor, as well as a Volunteer Advisor for All Together. She was previously CEO at White Stuff, and has held senior roles with multiple high street retailers.

Her article first appeared in Retail Week.