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In recent months, much has been said in the media about the causes of the fall of high-profile South African businesses  including SAA, Comair, Edcon, Phumelela, and the Fairmont Zimbali hotel. 


There has also been significant speculation on when and how they will be able to rebuild – if at all. But, in these stories, we also see another sort of cautionary tale — a human one. 

When businesses fall into distress, people’s jobs and livelihoods are invariably put at risk. This carries financial as well as very real human costs. But, too often, the human aspect of business rescue is not only underestimated, but not prioritized as it should be. 

However, in my years as a business rescue practitioner, I have come to realize that the opposite should in fact apply. The motivation and buy-in of the employees  during a business rescue is as crucial, if not more important,  as the other measures implemented to stabilize the business. 

In recent years, I have worked on several business rescue situations, in various stages of progress. In every case, I saw an acute need to restore people’s confidence in themselves and in one another. 

When we go into a business rescue process, one of our main goals is therefore to motivate, energize and get the buy-in of key staff members who will be instrumental in restoring the business out of crisis. 

Change guru Rosabeth Moss Kanter famously said “change is only a problem when it is done to you”. 

We’ve seen time and again employees being left in the dark about business issues. This inevitably leads to panic and demoralisation. But handled well, these situations can actually be an opportunity to create an entirely new, highly motivated culture that the whole future of the business can be built on. We prefer to work as a team with the employees and not against them.

Viewing staff engagement through a different lens 

The first step in staff engagement during business rescue situations is recognising that there will be feelings of resentment, uncertainty and fear, which  most likely have been for some time. 

Prior to the commencement  of the business rescue proceedings, the employees already know there are problems. Creditors are most likely calling, products are out of stock and a number of once loyal customers have gone elsewhere.  They are rightfully worried for their jobs, their futures, their families, never mind the fact that there is a strained atmosphere. Then the business rescue process starts, and motivation levels risk going from low to virtually non-existent. It does not have to be this way. 

The first step is to recognise the issues.  Then use the pain points as an opportunity to create a more inclusive and engaged environment.  I am always heartened by the commitment and cooperation shown by the employees despite the uncertainty of business rescue. They also don’t know how the new kids on the block will treat them.

The key is to include people as much as possible in the planning process and give them a voice in how changes are implemented. Bottom line – you need to make sure they feel you understand their concerns and value their commitment at such a critical time. Remember, these are people who have dedicated several months if not years of their lives to the business.

Although these plans may be initially met with skepticism by team members. Motivating central staff members and giving them the opportunity to have their own voice, as well as make their own decisions will quickly see them becoming cheerleaders for the business rescue initiative. 

Our core goal when we are appointed to a  business rescue is to save jobs, create dialogue, implementing targets and incentives and rewarding  people involved with recognition. 

In a recent business rescue we completed for a clothing retailer, the  key to the successful rescue was building a rapport with and motivating the employees. 

We built a repertoire with staff, getting everyone involved and committed to the process. This proved instrumental in helping us get back to trading. 

*Susan*, an operations manager for the company, said, “Lockdown was an incredibly scary time for so many businesses including ours. Faced with the prospect of losing our incomes in the short-term and our jobs in the longer-term, the team felt scared and demoralised. The strong focus on team morale by the BR team meant that staff were motivated to do their part in helping get the company back on track.”

At the same time, *Steve*, a manager from a furniture manufacturing company we helped turn around, echoes these sentiments, saying “Keeping employee engagement front and centre and maintaining energy and momentum, was instrumental to the ultimate turnaround in the company’s performance.”

In the same vein, a company we helped turn around had this to say – “We must reiterate that these past few years have been the most difficult in the life of the company for all staff and stakeholders associated with it. The presence of the business rescue team made the process so much easier. We thank you guys. Words will fail to describe our gratitude” 

Grow your people to grow your business

All business rescue situations are different, however, there is one element that always has to be on top of the agenda: Employee buy-in. As Simon Sinek said, “Customers will never love a company until the employees love it first. Transparent and Open Communication  is a vital tool in building a high-performance culture. A Gallup study found that “Engaged employees are more present and productive, more attuned to the needs of customers and more observant of processes, standards and systems.  Bottom line: Employee engagement in business rescue situations needs to be an absolute priority if you want to ensure business success in the long-term. 

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