By | Dr. Sundar Parthasarathy | Helping you with insights and actions for success
These are perhaps the most challenging of the times to run or own a business. The global pandemic has spared no business (regardless of the type or size) from taking a severe hit.
Due to their importance under these expedient circumstances, some businesses have been operating, albeit constrainedly, with the government sparing them of the restrictions applicable to many other businesses. But, if you thought the lockdown and the grinding to a halt of your business that came with was a crisis, you might want to reconsider that view.
When you try to get your business back on rails is when you will face the real crisis. As you try to restart, you can expect to run into a stormy situation, of the likes that may not be like anything you have experienced. The markets and its dynamics may have changed, and the clients may want you to go above and beyond even as they seek lenience for their lapses; a nearly dead supply chain will require extraordinary efforts for revival; the operations will have to deliver at significantly lower levels of staffing, with the redoing of the layouts to meet new hygiene standards; stretched cash cycles; the extra efforts needed to bolster the employee morale and engagement.
As someone with whom the proverbial buck finally stops, you will be called upon to show exemplary leadership in the face of a crisis whose complexity and magnitude you may have never encountered (or even envisaged). How you make things happen in the face of this crisis and get the job done for your set of stakeholders by providing the direction and guidance will determine how good your ‘crisis leadership’ is. Read on and think about what you should focus on as a leader, to help your business weather the storm ahead, and deliver results that will make you (and your business) emerge as a winner.
1) Early realization: No one could have predicted that your business – and that of your clients and suppliers – would have come to a halt. All at the same time! However, you must ensure that you and your team at the top (taken together to be the top management team – TMT) must show real urgency in getting to a shared understanding of what could be the dimensions of the fallout. If you have not initiated some steps towards this while you are in the “lockdown” phase, you have missed the essence of the word “early.” The TMT members must work their respective networks – and bring in some signals and crucial fragments that can help form a clear, wholesome picture. As a leader, what steps have you already initiated towards this? Is TMT working their networks? Is the TMT using other employees who are ideal candidates to scan for vital signals from the ecosystem?
2) Pulling it all together: Clarity is always the first victim of a crisis! As information flows in, in bits and chunks, have a process of pulling it all together. Create the picture for the markets, the clients, the supply-side, the operations, the people-side, the compliances – and work the TMT to create a holistic understanding. Be prepared to look at multiple scenarios – it will keep you better prepared even if you were to encounter a scenario that was not precisely as envisaged. Failing to think of something is often the first step to a potential failure. Such scenario-building will call for divergent thinking – and when people are under stress, the ability to think takes a toll. Lead the effort by demonstrating how to stay open to new realities and possibilities, ad embrace new paradigms with confidence.
As a leader, how do you ensure that the TMT huddles down to build scenarios – and flesh out the impacts and implications? How are you making sure that the creative teammates and those with divergent thinking abilities contribute to their bandwidth? How do you ensure that no one is shy of raising any question that points to a potential challenge? Have you looked at the possibility of using third-party advice to avoid missing or understating anything vital? How do you ensure that uncertainty, ambiguity, and the lack of clear answers do not impact team morale?
3) Responses and Decisions: Scenarios move you to consider responses and decisions. Remember, while the TMT is facing a crisis hitherto unseen, you have in place an organization – and your job is to see to it that the organization steps up and delivers. Explore with the TMT the proposals on responses to potential challenges (and opportunities too) in various scenarios. Think about the resource/capability challenges, the failure modes and remedies, the agility needed to change things on the fly, and the sustainability of outcomes, and the means to ensure that. Understand what could be some new conditions/circumstances that may require reiteration of decision rights. However, keep in mind the need to empower your teammates. On the other hand, be timely with the decision call when a matter escalates to you. Riding this storm out will bring you face to face with realities that will call for hard decisions. Consult with people appropriate. Hear them out. Make the calls.
As a leader, how do you ensure that your teammates are working their teams to create response strategies? How do TMT members ensure the inclusion and participation of employees in figuring out altered/new routines? How does the TMT ensure decisions are made as close as possible to where the problem/challenge lies – and exceptions to this rule are indeed justified? As the leader of the business, what are some of your new work routines that form an integral part of the organization’s crisis response? Do the TMT members seek to consult experts (and affected individuals) while making decisions? Do you have mentors in your network to go to for discussing your hard decisions?
4) Keeping it seamless and boundaryless: Crisis response is never effective without teamwork. However, the TMT must think deeply about the intensity of such teamwork, the complexity of coordination, the hustle needed, the combining of the flexibility to adapt to things on the fly, and the discipline for adhering to routines old and new. Nowadays, one often hears the advice, “Never waste a crisis.” Use the crisis response mode that your organization will soon get into to take your teamworking culture a few notches up from where it is now. Put a premium on TMT members leading the way in working seamlessly with their peers – and as they do this consistently, the remainder of the people in the business will get the message. Think of teamwork that goes beyond the boundaries of your company/BU – and facilitate the formation and the working of teams that will have members from outside your company. How does the TMT ensure that teams are formed to suit the objectives and constraints, and are resourced and empowered? How are teams ensuring (or being facilitated for) robust ideation, creative exploration, and out-of-the-box-thinking? What routines are there to deal with challenges the teams face when making decisions and acting on them? How can technology be leveraged to bring together teams when in a hybrid-model (employees in both WFO and WFH modes)? As a leader, how are you working to ensure boundaryless collaborations with customers and suppliers/external partners? Yes, the crisis presents could even present the valuable opportunity to ask even your customers for help, as well as partner with them, and deepen your bonds. How about coopetition (i.e., cooperating with your competitor(s)? Many of these boundaryless initiatives will test your abilities at influencing others who are outside your company.
5) The whole and the parts: Your business, as a whole, has to step up and rise to the challenges. A shared understanding of the big picture – and how the parts come together – must be promoted all the time by the TMT. But let the need for concertedness in understanding and responses not make the TMT lose the ability to recognize and isolate some problems or challenges – and dealing with them in a contained way. Failing to do so may result in the unsettling of the new rhythm that you may have established for the business. What routines does the TMT have inn sensing and containing issues/challenges that need to be contained and dealt with in a ring-fenced manner? What is the post-closure routine to create a common understanding at the TMT level?
6) Reassuring stakeholders: Your stakeholders, especially customers and employees, will look to you and your teammates to seek clarity and reassurance. They must see you all provide a clear interpretation of the crisis, as having a clear understanding of the impacts and giving authentic hope and confidence. What are TMT’s efforts at proactively addressing potential concerns of stakeholders? What routines do you use to prioritize issues? How do you anchor your narratives in the company’s core values – especially when addressing employee concerns?
7) 360-degree communication: Stakeholder communication during a full-blown crisis is vital – but it needs a well thought out approach. Communication routines hitherto employed – in form, content, and delivery – will need a rethink. Internal communications may require a step up in both frequency and disclosures to provide clarity and make the call for action. Recalibrate the communication expectations your board may have. Get proper advice on communication strategies to preserve customer loyalty and brand image, and for engagement with influencers. Communicate the small but significant wins (not just in the market, but elsewhere too!) the business is making as it fights its way through the crisis – and do not forget to shine the spotlight on the heroes in these stories. Use technology to strengthen consistency in and timeliness of stakeholder communication. What new routines have been established in the organization’s communications strategy, and what roles do you and your teammates play in this? Which parts of the playbook have been re-written for communication with employees, customers, influencers, and stakeholders? How are you ensuring consistency in communication? How is technology being leveraged?
8) Emphasizing accountability: The breadth of the actions being considered, and the interdependence of outcomes being pursued across many levels, cannot be overemphasized. If the business has a proven culture of accountability and ownership, then that is a great advantage. On the other hand, if you felt this was a weak spot in your company culture, you may do well to use this crisis to improve this. What are you doing to keep your expectations unambiguous? How do leaders at the TMT level participate in conversations to establish goal clarity, the buy-in of all the actors, facilitate point-person endowment and empowerment, and provide reassurance towards goal attainment?
9) Commitment to learning: Given the uniqueness of this crisis, your business will be challenged to improvise and experiment. If your company has a deeply established learning orientation, you have a good head start over your competitors that may lack this. Companies with a strong learning orientation have a culture where objective assessments are valued, there is openness in accepting critique while making plans, and failures are seen as outcomes with valuable lessons. The “fail fast” motto was perhaps never so important as your business drives through this crisis. Encourage leaders at all levels to have a constant watch on “what has worked (or not worked)” [comes with the learning orientation] and show the agility to change things on the go [comes with accountability, empowerment, and seamless working]. How is the TMT ensuring that failure proofing and learning from failure are equally valued? How comfortable are employees at reporting failure? How agile are the teams in responding to failure? How is L&D being repurposed?
10) Staying resilient: Your business could very well be facing an unprecedented challenge. You are trying to re-establish the rhythm for the business in the new normal. Speed is of the essence, and the time taken to deliberate, and plan may be an unaffordable luxury. Despite all the wisdom at hand, not all uncontrollable variables may play out as expected, scenario building notwithstanding. So, there will be setbacks – and some may be significant. Your organization’s resilience is directly proportional to yours. Make peace with disappointing outcomes and have the mindset to persevere and stay at the wheel. Encourage others to do the same. There could be great value in understanding the difference between taking your business seriously and taking yourself seriously. See to it that the TMT takes criticisms in their right perspective. Manage boundaries and shield the people inside the business from any assessment that, in your view, is unduly harsh. Think about what needs to change in the approach and deployment of employee engagement to help employees stay resilient.
The crisis is here. You can wish for it to last a lot less long and impact your business a lot lesser than it potentially can! And, then go lead in a manner to realize that wish or get pretty close to it. Stay determined. Be optimistic. Think differently and value dissent. Be helpful. Value agility. Applaud resilience. Be inclusive. Show empathy. Reflect and learn. The crisis is a historical one but make no mistake that it comes with a rare opportunity to create history.