Leaders have been on an unprecedented journey in the last three months. The shock of the dramatic lockdown in March prompted the need to control events. The government acted in a necessarily directive manner telling sectors who could trade or not, enforcing home based working, and even paying staff through the furlough scheme. Business leaders looked to short term survival measures and could defer the discussion of many longer-term options on future ways of working because the government (and the epidemic) had taken those decisions out of their hands.
It’s been an exhausting few months, but in many ways, leaders now face a more complex set of challenges. As lockdown rules are reduced/weakened, furlough schemes are phased out, and customers take tentative steps out of their houses, leaders face some tough choices. How do they sustain their organisation today, whilst exploring what might be radically different business models and structures to meet the needs of an uncertain future? There are no easy answers, but based on recent conversations with leaders in different sectors our tips would be to:
- Keep the operational planning horizon close. The initial crisis may have receded but the current phase of restarting businesses, changing work patterns again and responding to a myriad of changing guidelines brings its own operational challenge. If the longer term is dramatically unclear, the requirements to deliver an on-going effective operation in exceptional circumstances are very clear indeed. Staff at all levels can work through what needs to be done on a month by month basis to respond to customer demands and sustain the business, so keep the operational planning horizon close.
- Delegate the day-to-day and engage the Board. Delivering the operational business in the short term can and should be led by the right people at the right level of the organisation. These decisions don’t all require executive input and leaders now need to remember how to delegate! Allowing others to focus on short term tactical leadership, allows executives to carve out the time to face the future and to start the process of mapping a sustainable way for forward. This is an opportunity to engage with the Board and with significant stakeholders. These groups will have also been focused on the survival agenda in recent months, but everyone now needs to start to test scenarios that can inform the future direction of the business.
- Confront reality. Leaders now need to step back from the operational and confront the reality of the decisions ahead. Is the market radically changed? Is the current business model no longer fit for purpose? Will there be a requirement to radically reshape the business if it is to survive? These questions and many others require a rational response in a very emotional context when organisational and personal agendas can be in conflict for some staff.
- Don’t forget your values. When leaders at all levels are exhausted, standards and behaviours can drift. How leaders approach this phase of the pandemic will define their ability to sustain; their followership from staff, their loyalty from customers, and the confidence of stakeholders. This is not the time to forget your corporate values, but to operate in a way that demonstrates that confronting the tough decisions being clear about ‘who we are’. Whatever the future brings, organisational values are the DNA of any business. And values can be the foundation of future success, if ‘lived’ by leaders as they confront the hard choices ahead.