As Winston Churchill once reflected, “Leaders never let a good crisis go to waste.” Today, leaders are following that advice, aiming to move their organizations forward as they deal with an uncertain future.
From research I carried out with senior executives in more than 20 global organizations earlier this year, three strategies — covering personal and professional spheres — have emerged. Together, they provide a mental framework for leaders and innovators to effectively navigate the intersection of loss and opportunity in these unprecedented times.
A mental framework with three pillars
1. Adopt the “and” mentality. Leaders seem to be exceptionally adept at simultaneously managing situations from two perspectives. This is what I call the “and” mentality, as opposed to the “or” mentality, where only one thing can be done at a time. A chief information officer (CIO) I spoke with reported that, having upended her funding prioritization model, she was cutting costs and investing at the same time.
Many C-level executives have put in place a multistage crisis-response program as a means by which they and their teams can manage multiple priorities concurrently. These programs typically have three overlapping phases — rapid response, emerging from the lockdown, and preparing for the future — but some had up to five steps, including “enhance” and “anticipate.” A McKinsey report points to seven CIO COVID-response priorities.
Each timebox has its distinct priorities. The immediate reaction phase focuses on staff wellness and business continuity. One CIO enabled over 350,000 staff to work from home in about 8 days. Coming up (sooner rather than later, we hope), we will see companies transition to placing big bets, including changes in the business model. Airline executives, for instance, are looking to pivot to adjacent travel sectors, such as rail.
2. View time as a malleable dimension. One of the executives in my research referred to experiencing a feeling akin to the soft, melting pocket watches featured in Salvador Dali’s surrealist painting. For Ian Bremmer, president and founder of Eurasia Group, it’s as if we’re living in the 19th and 21st centuries simultaneously. With working at home and lockdown routines, time has decelerated.
For others, time has accelerated. The government of Flanders, for example, rolled out a new web application in less than 2 weeks to automate the processing of applications from Flemish entrepreneurs, so they could receive financial help for their businesses to survive during this time. Legislative assemblies, traditionally seen as stalwarts of traditions, have introduced e-voting. In just 4 weeks, for example, the UK Parliament installed and tested a system for casting votes online.
3. Empathize with people, customers and staff alike. Leaders have reached the pragmatic conclusion that there will be very clear winners and losers in a recession. A recent paper lists 15 industries in each camp; restaurants will be short-term losers, for instance, and online retailers will be short- and long-term winners.
Leaders are staying close to customers in these sectors and approaching them with an appropriate mindset to determine the right conversational path to go down and the actions they should take. “It’s so easy to be tone-deaf at the moment,” one interviewee told me, “I start by giving people a good listening to.”
Dialogue is the tool executives use to reduce uncertainty and build trust, whether it is with customers, partners or employees who need support because they feel down, or because the executives can’t cope with pent-up demand (think personal protective equipment and face masks) or any other reason.
In November 1942, with almost 3 years of global fighting still to come, Churchill declared: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” The key word here is “perhaps,” for in truth, we don’t know where we are on the journey to recovery. But leaders who acknowledge and can cope with today’s uncertainty are the ones who will be best positioned to thrive going forward.