As an amateur chef, I often face an interesting challenge. Do I strictly follow the recipe or do I deviate? Early in my cooking tenure, I ambitiously tried a recipe for penne alla vodka. As the sauce began to cook, something told me that despite what the recipe said, I needed to add in more cream. The creamier the better, right? When I proudly placed the meal on the table, it was quickly greeted with looks of apprehension. In the end, my children refused to eat the concoction, which had the look and consistency of pink glue, and to add insult to injury, even my dog refused to eat it.

What I’ve learned over the years is that when you are first starting out, whether as a chef or CEO, you should resist the temptation to improvise. Stick to the plan. For small businesses in particular, other paths might look intriguing, but they can very quickly lead you off track. Over time, as your company matures and you learn the market, you can then make adjustments based on the knowledge you have gained. Running a company, which specializes in delivering quality employee benefits and services to the small business  market (i.e. 10-500 employees), presents a similar opportunity.

A precise recipe for effectively navigating through these challenging economic times, I do not have. However, I do have a few key ingredients that I picked up along my 30+ year career in business that are more relevant today than ever before.

Cut the Excess Calories
The biggest challenge facing CEOs these days is how to reduce expenses. Taking a red pen to the budget is not always easy and sometimes requires difficult decisions.  I’ve found that employees can be very helpful in identifying cost-saving opportunities.  I recently asked my employees to consider the following question: “If I owned this business, rather than worked for it, what would I do differently to help manage expenses?”

This process helped us identify an issue where air cards, which allow mobile devices to connect to wireless Internet access, were being widely distributed and incurring monthly fees, but were not actually being used in many cases. Employees were more than willing to turn in the unused equipment and within weeks, we were able to cut several thousands of dollars from our operating expenses.

Don’t Be Afraid to Offer Guacamole Instead of Steak
Companies, big and small, are worried about losing customers due to the effects of the economy. Customers in turn, are more worried about the cost of goods and services than ever before. How do you align those conflicting tensions and keep your business afloat at the same time?

Try building a low-cost option that is competitive with other offerings in the market, but at a lower price. For example, a U.S. hamburger chain used to have steak as an optional topping on its menu. In light of the current crisis, they removed it from the menu—a pricey item for both the company and customers—and instead offered guacamole. They were still able to satisfy their customers’ desire for a hamburger with a special twist, but they made it more cost-effective for everyone involved.

Possibility Within Partnership
A recent Assurant (Stock Quote: AIZ) survey on partnership expectations revealed that 72% of respondents expect partners to help them meet their profitability goals as a measure of loyalty. To be a good business partner, you must play offense, and help your customers better perform, adapt and lead. The question is, how do you meet those expectations with limited resources? Look to leverage existing business partnerships to expand current product offerings without having to do all the work or make the financial investment.

We took our life insurance product and partnered with a company to provide will preparation services. We knew that will preparation often goes hand-in-hand with buying a life insurance policy and found a way to include those services as an add-on to our product. Our customers gained access to a service they needed, our partner received the extra business from our referrals and we benefited from our network of agents and brokers having a more appealing product to sell.

Perspective, Perspective, Perspective
At least once a month, I read a business or management book and identify a couple of takeaways that I can share with my staff. In fact, I often distribute brief book reports, much like I did in the fourth grade. In his book “A Sense of Urgency,” John Kotter says, “True urgency is driven by a deep determination to win, not anxiety about losing.”

I couldn’t agree more. It is easy to get anxious and worried about all of the problems that face businesses today. It is easy to focus on what’s not going well, what’s making it harder than ever to run a successful business and meet bottom lines. But rather than get bogged down in that endless abyss, focus on what is going well and take steps to address what isn’t.

John S. Roberts is president and chief executive officer of Assurant Employee Benefits, which specializes in employee benefits and services, including long-term and short-term disability, life and accidental death and dismemberment insurance, dental coverage and disability reinsurance management services.