Habitat, Oddbins and Focus DIY are just three retailers who appointed administrators in 2011. According to research by Deloitte, the accounting firm, the number of retail companies falling into administration in the second quarter of 2011 increased by 8% to 43 compared with 40 in the same period last year. And so, in these tough economic times, many finance professionals will find themselves unexpectedly working for a company in financial difficulty.
This is sometimes known as working in a ‘distressed environment’ and with good reason: it can be a challenging platform from which to operate. But there are various ways to ensure you keep smiling and come out on top.
Accept the things you cannot change
When a company is in administration, business matters are out of the control of the directors and board. The administrators are running the show and will be making day-to-day decisions about creditors, payments, banking, risk and invoicing: all matters traditionally under the control of the finance department. Understandably, this can be disorientating and difficult for anyone whose remit has previously covered any of these areas. Fighting the administrators won’t help; they’re appointed to do a job and they’d like your cooperation but can do what they like without it.
Anyone familiar with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s ‘Change Curve’ will know that the reaction to change traditionally starts with denial and is followed by anger, bargaining and depression. The curve ends with acceptance of the change. In an administration situation the earlier the finance department moves to acceptance the easier life becomes for everybody concerned. Once the administrators have been appointed, acceptance and cooperation are your friends. The only things you can change are your reaction to the situation and your own behaviour.
Once a company is in administration almost anything could happen: the business, or part of it, could be sold (and you with it); you may want a reference from someone you currently work for; the company could close altogether. But if you stay in the same field you will continue to bump into the same people, professionally, for many years to come. So keep your cool and remain professional at all times – it can only enhance your reputation. And in business, matters are never made worse by good manners and a positive attitude but these are often noticed and rewarded. The company shouldn’t expect you to lie to customers or suppliers so maintaining your integrity is important too but any particularly difficult matters can usually be referred to the administrators.
Keep your cool
This is similar to staying professional but with a slight difference: it’s about recognising why your co-workers, who have hitherto been cooperative and maybe, even, your mates, have suddenly turned into psycho colleagues from hell. Life can be difficult working for a company in administration and everyone from the Chief Executive down will be feeling the strain. And stress, uncertainty and extreme anxiety can change people’s behaviour. Not yours, of course, because you will stay professional but if you recognise that your colleagues may not be themselves and make minor allowances accordingly you’ll be making your life (and theirs) a lot easier. That’s not to say that the unacceptable is suddenly to be tolerated, because it isn’t, but if someone is behaving in an uncharacteristically difficult way it might be worth temporarily cutting them some slack. This doesn’t only apply to colleagues – suppliers and customers may also be edgy and uncharacteristically badly behaved as they try to protect their own interests. You don’t have to be a doormat but keeping calm and carrying on is the right thing to do. And the view is better from the moral high ground.
We are where we are
In an administration situation some workers will already have left the company, some will have been made redundant – and given little incentive to hand over before they leave – and others will still be employed but perhaps without leadership or without the knowledge they need to carry out their roles. This can sometimes mean that nobody understands a process or procedure end to end, due to lost knowledge, poor paperwork or newly-unsupported computer systems. You could spend months trying to track down the original source of knowledge – good luck with that – but sometimes it’s quicker to create a new process than establish how the old one worked. And there could be a silver lining because this can throw up improvement opportunities, which any business should make the most of as they arise. And of course, if everything is documented when you move on or are promoted, the colleagues you leave behind won’t be left in the same situation.
It’s tough working in any position in a company going through administration or in financial difficulty – whether you’re the CFO or the office cleaner, uncertainty is always hard to deal with.
But you can make the best of it by behaving well, giving your best, and remaining calm and professional. Who knows? Once the administrators have moved on there could be a job for you in a restructured company, a recommendation from someone who liked your business-like style or a new opportunity via an ex colleague. And, like a phoenix from the ashes, your career stock could rise too.
Louise Graham spent five years working for The Walt Disney Company before taking a break to have her two children. Since then she has worked on an interim basis for Abbey National, First Choice, The Carphone Warehouse and Fountains, who were previously part of Connaught plc (in administration). Fountains separated from Connaught plc and moved into independent ownership in 2011.