Three Hard Leadership Lessons I’ve Learned That Have Nothing to Do with Covid

Wendy Winn, PT, OCS, Director of Custom Performance

“I made it! We did it!”

This was my story from 2020-2022. My entire identity was: “what I learned as a small business owner during Covid,” “NYC Entrepreneurship through Covid,” “I survived no rent relief in NYC,” and “I led my team through!”

All true. I did a great job and made hard choices. I grieved the dream of what Custom Performance could be (Boston! Bonuses for all!) I worked through it. And that was my story…until 2023.

Drastically decreasing insurance payments over the years since 2020, impacting our ability to make ends meet, have been the real challenge.

We make less than half per client in 2023 than we did in 2019. Covid was hard, yes, but having my business plan tank as a result of decreasing insurance reimbursement was harder. It was an invisible crisis; and one that I took on as my sole responsibility. 

From 2014-2019, I ran Custom moderately responsibly. But reimbursement was good, and we only really didn’t make ends meet during our off-season (winter.) In 2020, I vowed to run Custom Performance responsibly – from a money perspective. I vowed to never have to ever lay off our staff again. It was my job to pay payroll, to take care of these people, and I made a serious effort to give myself a business education.

I launched my own mini internship program in business for myself. I employed an external CFO consultant to help teach me QuickBooks and understand accounting and reporting. After that, I hired CEO consultants to help give me advice on how to run the business. I kept trying to get better and better.

In all of this, I inadvertently turned away from the people that I loved, the people who stood by my side and stayed loyal to Custom Performance throughout the pandemic. I turned away from the people with the answers: the staff, and myself. It was all well-intentioned on my end, with some great outcomes, but ultimately resulted in a mess – a staff and leadership crisis.

I was so focused on numbers and procedures that I stressed out the staff.

I sought out answers from external sources, leaving them feeling alienated. And then we had staffing changes that were out of my control. I wanted to give up, I wanted to quit, too, because I knew I wasn’t meeting the standards of the staff. I wasn’t leading how they needed me to lead.

As a leader, I’ve learned that everything your employee tells you is important. You must listen. So I cried, and I beat myself up about where I had gotten to, and then… I listened.

Call it a reckoning, call it a wake up call, I needed to understand where I was heading and re-route…quickly. I knew I could right the ship, but I knew it would take time. I could not knowingly continue on this course.

I immediately sat with the hard reality that I was not the leader the team wanted. It was time to remember just what in the heck I set out to do. It was time to get back to the heart of Custom: where people are first and we operate on inspiration.

Today, I continue to reconnect actively with our team. I have the hard conversations so that they trust me. And, so I can listen and grow.

Here are the hard lessons I’ve learned this year:

1. You are selling your people, not a service.

I really fell down here. I was convinced our service was what we are selling. It is not. The people are what matter. Never underestimate your team. Take risks on your people and invest in them, even when the numbers don’t make sense.

2. You’re important. You can find the answers.

Never underestimate your abilities to lead. During this time, I believed the “younger people” had the answers. I told myself that “they” had the answers. It was a move of democracy, again, really well-intentioned, but not the right move.

3. Things will change, and not always in a “cool story” way.

Not always in a “yes, I made it through this challenge!” way. Rather, in a “this business model is different and very hard to operate” way. You will have to constantly be aware of and update your story accordingly. Self-awareness here is key on who is leading and what story they are telling.

My goal is to grow every day as a leader and entrepreneur. My leadership perspective has shifted, and I am committed to learning from these lessons.

By Wendy Winn, PT, OCS, Director of Custom Performance

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