9 Oct 2020

Thoughts in Progress #5

The latest in our Thoughts in Progress series, João Seabra, Digital Creative Director, APAC, gives us 5 key traits for business leaders to thrive in a crisis.

João Seabra, Digital Creative Director, APAC

No one could have predicted how 2020 would play out. Media calls it a textbook Black Swan event. But is it? An event that’s so unpredictable and that can have a severe impact and inflict catastrophic economic damage. We remember the 2008 U.S. housing market financial crash, the similar dot-com bubble of 2001 or the 79.6 billion percent Zimbabwe hyperinflation case of 2008.

We can all agree on the similar impact from COVID-19 so far and the grim economic forecast for multiple sectors. But pandemics, epidemics and disease outbreaks are not unusual. They have been registered in history for centuries, with many of them having similar global impacts at the time.

We had enough warnings and data to say COVID-19 was predictable. Bill Gates told the world in his now seemingly prophetic 2015 TED Talk that the next global threat to humanity would not be a war, but a global influenza pandemic. He added, at the time, that we weren’t ready for it. He was right. We did not have the supplies, the protocols nor the data infrastructure ready. It became uncharted territory for almost every organization.

But it’s the companies that have used this forced opportunity for adapting and shifting their business practices that have been managing well during the pandemic. Showing that it’s time to start acting differently, to lead with short- and long-term adaptability planning. Rethinking how they operate, how they can be more efficient, how they can add new value to their clients and even find new clients, and how to instil new behaviour and mindsets in their people. Building a resilient business will demand that leaders find a balance between fallback plans and growth momentum.

These are 5 key traits that business leaders should possess to promote resilience and growth during a crisis:

Adaptability

Unfortunately, business leaders can no longer rely on their crystal ball, but there’s certainly value in expecting the worst, planning for it, and reacting quickly if needed. The sooner you start practising backup planning and adapting to new plans when necessary, the more efficient the process will become. Business models should be rewritten to embed short and long-term adaptability.

Business leaders should be humble and avoid the temptation of sticking with decisions made using outdated data. Keep reviewing your data and keep adjusting your team goals based on objective, good quality, and trustworthy information, and shift course whenever needed.

The world has never changed so fast and unpredictably as now, in a time where geographical, political and big economic decisions change without much warning. Being an ostrich leader may run your business into the ground alongside your head.

Empathy

The more human business leaders are with their teams, the more those same teams trust and empathize with them. And in times like these, where people are facing more stress than before, the need to empathize and pay careful attention to peoples’ needs is paramount.

By the time we go back to a new and more predictable normal, some people will be experiencing some level of trauma and loss in some way – whether due to health or economical suffering. Moving fast and effectively on building empathy as a business leader will help your teams rebound faster and will set up a stronger foundation for success on similar challenges ahead, building more motivation among your people.

Vulnerability

Business leaders are being called upon to take on decisions they were never trained for, relating to their people’s health regarding working from home, or when is safe to return to the office.

In May, Airbnb CEO, Brian Chesky, made a public letter addressing his people regarding the layoff of 25% of staff globally. A very difficult moment for any CEO, but equally difficult for any business. By being transparent and embedding his feelings, he portrayed himself and the company as human and relatable, and transformed a delicate PR moment, into a very positive one, where his letter was shared and praised by millions.

Remote Teams Management

Before the pandemic, the concept of people routinely working from home was reserved for a handful of tech companies. But businesses have suddenly been pushed into remote working.

As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said, “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.” Some were better prepared than others but is has been a quick and steep learning curve for all. When I look at the road ahead, I see an opportunity for presenting flexibility as a perk, for cutting fixed costs in workplaces, and for tapping into a much larger pool of talent.

What starts as a challenge can become an opportunity for collaboration across the globe. With COVID-19, our team in London feels as close as the team in Hong Kong or Sao Paulo. Whilst physically disconnected from the colleagues we used to sit next to, we can connect virtually with everyone in our agency network, meaning we can truly source globally for the best talent, creating stronger project teams.

As higher data bandwidths across the globe become more accessible, digital tools only previously available in a physical, centralized office will make it possible to access tools from any device – reducing investment and IT per worker, and allowing businesses to scale their teams faster to be reactive to the market.

Evangelist for Innovation and Transformation

These last months, many businesses and sectors were forced to innovate. In education, teachers around the world were pushed into remote teaching, using technology they never had proper training for. Although a forced leap forward, it was one that will bring much effectiveness and value.

Other sectors haven’t faced such an obvious necessity to evolve in their digital transformation, but that doesn’t mean change isn’t happening and your competition isn’t already taking advantage of it.

Whilst working to form the United Nations, Winston Churchill famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. This is still pretty good advice. The market is ripe for innovation, risk and transformation. The average person doesn’t hope for change in their workplace, their job responsibilities, or their company business practices, but this year, people are more ready and willing to adapt. Innovation is accepting risk and failure into the business equation, and currently, the market is more willing to accept failure caused by progress.

During past world crises, companies with resilient, future-ready and innovation-focused business models have grown apart from the ones with legacy or stale business models.

There’s a long list of companies that were perfectly positioned for innovation and were leaders in their industry, but due to their risk-averse vision or long development times, were left bankrupt or eclipsed by smaller competitors that took risks. On this laggard list are names such as Nokia, GM, Atari, MySpace, Compaq, Blockbuster, Kodak and Toys’R’Us.

At the other end of the spectrum you have Nike, Apple, Google, Netflix, Spotify, Amazon and Alibaba. These companies have an internal culture prone to inspire ambition. They put their talent first, manage their innovation funnel carefully, and grant their innovation teams wide autonomy and power.

Conclusion

A world crisis like this is a great opportunity for leaders and their businesses if navigated wisely. It’s an opportunity for trial and error of new business streams, for reshaping stronger and more effective teams, for exploring big growth moves, and for building strong, trusted relationships with your clients.

But this opportunity demands leaders who can excel in more and broader areas, who are more generalist in their skillset and who can embed risk in their operating model while managing limited crisis budgets.

First published in Edge Verve.