May 05 2020| Leadership | crisis
by Phil Eyre Founder
Many of those things that we all said would 'never happen in a month of Sundays' are happening. Previously, ‘mission impossible’ was a conversation finisher, but it appears Covid-19 has swept some of our limited thinking away.
This became very apparent at our Leaders Nexus breakfast last week. These informal events bring heads of organisations from across Guernsey to explore "horizon thinking", how can leaders think beyond the immediate, especially in a crisis?
A strong theme that emerged from our conversation was that some things that previously seemed doubtful, if not impossible just five weeks ago, are now happening, especially working from home.
One CEO put it like this, 'If you'd asked me last year whether we'd get everyone working from home, I would have said not a chance, even if we had wanted to. Yet here we are.'
Businesses have discovered that:
Whilst there are clearly some downsides to working from home (I will tackle these in another article), the point is this:
What was received wisdom just a few weeks ago has fundamentally changed.
This crisis, as uninvited as it is, gives opportunity - I would argue an essential requirement - for leaders to challenge their beliefs and conventions. This requires looking beyond today's immediate needs and into the future, at a time when the future cannot be neatly defined. Like working from home, what would never have changed in a month of Sundays might now be the very thing that needs to change.
Here are some ways to think about this:
The head of a professional services team described how the partners of the business had "probably the most constructive meeting for ages" on how their values, principles and mission will propel them into the future. In other words, why they do what they do won't change, but how they do it will.
Leaders that are too wedded to specific products and processes run the risk of missing opportunities to build new products, new services, new approaches that serve their clients even better than has been the case in the past.
Keeping purpose and values at the centre enables different thinking - horizon thinking - beyond preserving conventional approaches to the business.
If you are asking a lot of 'what can we do?', reframe the question with 'why?'; why do we do this at all? Why do our customers come to us at all? Why does our work make a positive difference in the world? Then you can start to build up the 'whats'.
Note that I'm not saying that all traditions should change; some well-established habits might serve you well. But it is crucial to make this a conscious choice. There will be some traditions that no longer serve you, your customers and other stakeholders well.
One example from our Leaders Nexus breakfast:
What are your "musts" and are these still relevant? I've heard all of these in the last fortnight;
'We must pay a dividend.'
'We must interview in person.'
'We must pay bonuses.'
'We must meet weekly.'
Or perhaps particular sayings have become beliefs; are these still valid?
'The early bird catches the worm.'
'Dress to impress.'
'You only get one chance to make a first impression.'
'Winning is everything.'
'The customer is always right.'
'There's no such thing as a problem, only solutions.'
Traditions are expressed in a plethora of ways, in how things are said and done, look and feel. This crisis is accelerating the speed at which conventions are changing - you only need to look at the office dress code for an example.
A church leader, Rick Warren, makes this point well: 'Irrelevance happens when the speed of change outside an organisation is greater than the speed of change within an organisation.'
To avoid becoming irrelevant, a leader must challenge traditional thinking and conventions.
Some - perhaps all - will need to change.
One business leader described how stigmas are changing. Working from home would, even earlier this year, been stigmatised by some; now we see some potential benefits. It's likely that presenteeism, once a conventional career-advancement tactic, will itself become frowned upon in the immediate aftermath of this crisis.
We can also observe this in how some leaders have quickly changed their responses following public repulsion at perceived leaders taking advantage of the situation or putting their people at risk. Mike Ashley, CEO of Sports Direct quickly apologised and had to U-turn after declaring that his business is "essential" and that his workers should, therefore, be at work (and by implication, at risk).
A further example raised in our leaders' group today is in the investment arena. This crisis is accelerating (rapidly) the momentum behind sustainable investing. Companies will need to demonstrate their inherent goodness to attract quality investment, and investment businesses themselves will need to leap forward in their own responsible practices if they want to avoid attracting 'new' stigmas.
Great ideas can arise from anywhere in your organisation. Leaders have a responsibility to create the conditions in which ideas happen.
One business leader at our breakfast described how "ideas" are now top of their management meeting agenda. '95 % of the ideas are dropped, but the few that are taken forward are changing our business.'
Another described the creating of a "change leadership" group recently in their business, inviting people from across the organisation to join with the sole mission to think creatively about what can change and improve. One of the ideas - that was simple to implement - saved them £20,000.
Some leaders default to answering all the questions, especially in a crisis. Candidly it's quicker and easier to do so. But this doesn't enable others in the business to draw out their creativity. Good leaders ask great questions.
'What do you think is the real issue here?'
'What have you tried, who have you asked and what else could you try?'
'What have you assumed in reaching this conclusion?'
'How would a customer reply to this question?'
'How would you explain the problem to a new joiner with no history in our business?'
Curiosity and future thinking require intention; build time for questioning, exploring and asking questions into your diary. That might seem counterintuitive in a crisis when immediate demands are significant, but it is essential if you are to lead the organisation forward.
Find out how Leaders can help with your future thinking. Click Here