3 top tips on management in a pandemic

This is a subject I seem to have been speaking to people a lot about recently, so thought it would be worthwhile to write it down, but before we get into the subject I feel like I need to add in two disclaimers. 

1) I am definitely not a management expert, I don’t even think it’s something I am particularly good at, but at Pooch & Mutt we have developed a few systems over the last year of working remotely (with foundations put in place long-before) that have helped us manage and grow the company in this pandemic. 

2) Although we have had pandemic-driven challenges, such as being forced into remote working, supply issues and fundamental shifts in the business, the pandemic has not hit us in the way it has hit many other businesses. We already had good foundations in DTC sales and on Amazon and our bricks and mortar retailers (Sainsbury’s, Pets at Home etc) stayed open. Plus, dogs always need to eat, a lot of people have got new dogs and people were spending more time at home with their dogs. 

Still, we faced a lot of challenges and we overcame them well, so I want to share what has worked for us. The same system may work for you, or an adapted version of it. It might be totally wrong for your company and that’s fine too. Most teachings on management tend to be by people with experience in big organisations. Most of the people I speak to do not run big organisations. I have tried some of the ‘big organisation’ management techniques (ie OKRs) and never got them to work. I expect that these tips will be far more useful to people in smaller organisations than bigger ones.

I have a totally unproven and untested theory that if you want a running coach you’d be better off with a local friend that lives down the road who can do a sub-3hr marathon than you would be with a world-champion like Mo Farrah, who can do a 2:05 marathon. My thinking is that Mo has been running for so long and training professionally for so long he has no idea what it’s like to struggle to run an 8 min mile and fit training around other commitments. Mo has learnt so much, over such a long time, that he can’t have an appreciation of what others don’t know. By contrast, the sub-3hr marathoner who lives down the road appreciates what it’s like not to be a sponsored-world-champion, who has a desk job, so they would make a better coach for you. Your goals will be closer to their achievements, than to a world-champion’s achievements. I think the same is true in other areas, like business advice. I think you can learn more from someone who has (or has had) a company like your’s, but is a few (probably up to 10 max) years ahead of you, or even from someone in a smaller company who has worked on something you might not have worked on yet. You would learn a lot less from someone who has been in a big organisation, no matter how successful, because the gulf between their experience and your reality is too wide. That has certainly been the case for me. 

So here are the 3 things that are working for us:

Regular management/ team meetings

We hold 3 management team meetings a week on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.

At the start of the pandemic, they were daily. Monday’s got dropped pretty quickly as very little happens business-wise between Friday and Monday morning, and if it does then it probably needs dealing with first thing on Monday instead of discussing in a meeting. Thursdays we will come on to later. 

Tuesday is our most detailed and prescriptive meeting. Each member of the management team presents their weekly figures to the rest of the team, including looking at the full P&L (for tips on structuring your P&L click here). The management team is made up of me, Commercial Director (overseeing Accounts and Operations), Head of Sales, Head of E-Commerce and Head of Brand. On Tuesday we are also joined by our non-exec/mentor. This weekly meeting is something that we put in place 2-3 years ago and was easy to move online. The structure has been life-saving for the business and a great foundation for pandemic management. 

The Wednesday and Friday meetings are less detailed and prescriptive than Tuesday’s where we discuss whatever the issues are at that time. Fridays are often focussed towards operations and NPD, as we have a standing meeting with our main manufacturer following the management meeting. Each member of the team has the chance to bring up whatever they are working on and either need help with, or need to inform others about. 

After each of the management meetings the heads of each department have similar meetings with their teams, so that information flows through the company, any problems can be solved and actions can be taken quickly. 

Subordinate-led 1-2-1s

I have to confess that for the first 8+ years of Pooch & Mutt’s life I rarely did any 1-2-1s. This was to the absolute disgust and horror of my corporate-trained wife. I didn’t really get them, or how to make them work. A few years ago I was recommended a book called “The Effective Manager” by Mark Horstman (one of my 7 top books for all entrepreneurs).

It’s worth reading the book yourself, but the basic suggestion is that you have weekly half-hour 1-2-1s with each of your direct reports and that, most importantly, it is the direct report who sets the agenda for the meeting. You are allowed to have points that you want to discuss, but you have to save these for the end, after you have got through the direct report’s agenda. The focus on 1-2-1s being subordinate-led was a total game-changer for me and has made the meetings far more valuable to both parties.

In pandemic-reality, we have changed the timings of these to 45min-1hr 1-2-1s every fortnight. These are done on a Thursday and replaced the Thursday management meetings. As we’re not in the office together it’s good to have time to have a bit of a catch-up and with the pace of changes, we always tend to fill the longer slot. 

What tends to happen is that I ask the direct report to lay out the agenda at the start, then we go through the quicker items first, to leave longer to discuss the things that need more time. Invariably the items that I want to discuss are already covered in the direct report’s agenda.

I think that this structure means that no individual should have more than 4 or 5 direct reports, or they will spend too much of the week doing 1-2-1s, but I think that this is a good thing as it forces you to put a proper structure in your company and everyone becomes a lot clearer on lines of reporting and who works with who. 

As with the management meetings, this structure should be repeated in the rest of the company. So the 4 people who report to me, then do 1-2-1s with the 4-5 people who report to them, and as they develop teams they will carry on the structure.

Email updates

Before the pandemic, I had always thought that one of our superpowers as a company was that we were all together in the office and everyone knew what everyone else was doing. Potentially I may have overestimated how well this worked and how much everyone really did know about what everyone else was doing. However, making sure that knowledge flows though everyone in the company, whilst we are all operating remotely is a big challenge. 

We have introduced weekly email updates from each team leader to the rest of the company, with details of what their team are working on, important things coming up, big wins for the week and what they’re up to personally, plus invaluable Netflix recommendations.

This would have seemed like a ridiculous thing to do when we were all in the office together, but I actually think it’s done a better job of helping everyone know a bit about what their colleagues are up to than just over-hearing things in the office ever did. 

As we are coming out of lockdown, we are working on plans for how and when we get together in person. We don’t know what these are yet, and what will work, but we are looking at regular meetups. We don’t think that going back to working with everyone in the office is the future, everyone seems happier working from home and that is working for us, but we know there is a need to meet face-to-face occasionally. How that works is our next challenge.