Thriving In Uncertainty

The Harvard Business Review July-August 2020 issue ‘Emerging From The Crisis’ tackles pertinent issues for businesses in the current pandemic through a virtual roundtable discussion moderated by HBR editor-in-chief, Adi Ignatius. What can we expect moving forward? What is expected of leaders and how can we be most effective? 

Our people are our most valuable assets in our companies. We need to make sure that we are the best leaders we can be in order to support them and thereby support our organisations. 

Tory Burch, the fashion designer and retail magnate, sums it up perfectly.

“You need to keep your strategy intact but be flexible and agile. It’s also important for leaders to show vulnerability along with optimism, and to acknowledge that this situation is hard. The uncertainty really throws people off, but it helps if they see a focused management team that communicates frequently. People want authentic dialogue and transparency.”

1. Growth Mindset Over Fixed Mindset

If there’s anything the pandemic has shown us, it’s that we, as leaders, need to be ever-ready for change. We need to be able to think on our feet and respond appropriately to whatever comes our way.

“…be adaptable. The world is changing every single day, and we need to keep asking: How can we help our customers? How can we help our communities? We need to clear away bureaucracy, address things very quickly, and be operationally agile.” Nancy McKinstry, CEO of Wolters Kluwer, addresses the importance of flexibility in uncertain times. 

Global managing partner at McKinsey & Company, Kevin Sneader, referenced the research McKinsey had done in the wake of the last global recession. He noted that the companies that survived the 2008 financial crisis were the ones who had “created flexibility in their balance sheets and their costs before the crisis”. They were then free to be as flexible as necessary to stay afloat during the crisis. Similarly, the companies that have the capacity for change are the ones that will emerge as the victors from the current pandemic.

So we know we need to be agile. How do we do that? Sneader joked that trying to conceptualize and execute both long and short term goals single-handedly was like “(putting) a microscope up to one eye and a telescope up to the other”, all you’d get out of it is “a headache”. Instead, he suggested creating separate teams to handle both issues. One to consider strategies for regaining business in the present, and another to think about long-term repercussions or opportunities. 

2. The Need for Authenticity

“People want to see leaders being human. I’ve reiterated to our team: This is a time for leadership, not management. Be calm, have realistic optimism, and show up and be visible.” Chuck Robbins, CEO of Cisco Systems extols the merits of authenticity and vulnerability in the face of unpredictability. This, after all, is at the heart of human connection, according to Brené Brown, an expert on social connection. A Stanford study suggests that nurturing personal connections with your employees fosters respect and consequently makes them more loyal than their paycheck does.

 “Are they behaving in a socially responsible way? The younger generations, Gen Z in particular, will make future employment decisions in large part based on how companies are showing up in this pandemic. The social responsibility piece of this will have a direct impact on your ability to attract and retain top talent.” It’s a timely reminder that if we want to focus on the longevity of our companies, we must think of our future generations of employees. Harking back to her earlier point, McKinstry noted that the companies who mistreated their workers during the 2008 financial crisis paid a steep price for their negligence.

It’s an unprecedented time for the global economy. As leaders, it’s up to us to guide our teams with dexterity and kindness. We must be willing to embrace change.  We must be willing to listen to opposing viewpoints.  We must not be afraid of changing our business modus operandi. The world is watching. 

We’ll leave you on the parting words of Chuck Robbins.

“The culture of organizations, and their people, and how leaders show up during this moment—all of that will define who’s going to be successful in the future. Employees and society want to see who you are as a company. What do you stand for? The answers will have a lasting impact as we move beyond this.”


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