- Leaders and their resilience will be judged not on how heroic they can be but on their flexibility, innovation and ability to plan for multiple scenarios;
- Organisations need to consider new ways of operating in a different world with travel restrictions that impede international trade;
- The companies that succeed in future will be those that can diverge management and design thinking across their teams, not concentrate it a small group at the centre,and provide the psychological safety for projects to be tried – even if they fail.
This was the last forum in the first season of the event series, and focused on how organisations will cope in the future, how leaders should respond and why scenario planning rather than forecasting will be the way forward. The speaker panel included Rohit Talwar, a global futurist and CEO of Fast Future, and Professor David Denyer, Director of Research in the School of Management at Cranfield University.
Leon Edwards, Managing Director at DisplayMode, first spoke about how his company has not just survived the COVID-19 crisis but thrived - by pivoting from making retail point-of-sale systems to manufacturing PPE equipment. The firm is on track to make 10 million visors for the NHS by the end of 2020, having originally set out to deliver around 10,000.
Without the pre-existing high levels of employee engagement being in place, the business could not have succeeded in the way that it has, Edwards said. Valuing people and providing an environment where they come for more than just getting paid delivers huge benefits: the team were willing to do take on tasks outside the scope of their usual jobs and work together to keep the company moving forward.
Rohit Talwar said that this ability to consider different scenarios for the future is key, especially when there is so much change in regulation and guidance for businesses. While at the beginning of the pandemic organisations were focused on how they could get through a difficult situation that would improve after a few months, together with a rapid economic recovery, many now believe the worst scenario will prevail.
In this scenario, we will see the pandemic lasting for several years and a much slower economic recovery. Consumers around the world have seen significant reductions to household incomes and are reluctant to spend, while international travel bans and restrictions are impacting supply chains. This is leading to organisations reflecting on how they can respond and come up with ideas for how they could operate differently.
Companies may respond with radical ideas for exporting intellectual property to regional partners instead of manufactured goods, while countries may start manufacturing products regionally instead of importing them.
Meanwhile, some sectors will thrive because of changes to shopping habits introduced during lockdown, including packaging firms and companies making plastic screens between supermarket self-service tills.
Leaders will need to change to become more flexible and visionary, as well as leave some of the old ways of doing business. Brexit may change things again as it was planned for on the basis of doing business with countries where face-to-face meetings are vital, including China and South Korea.
David Denyer agreed, quoting John Maynard Keynes: “The difficulty lies not in the new ideas but in escaping the old ones.” Leaders will have to let go of assumptions about made them successful - before the cost of maintaining the old ways becomes too great.
This is the paradox of leadership, said Denyer, everyone wants to see a strong and stable leader and get behind a strong vision. But everything he has seen during the pandemic, when looking at leaders at all levels of an organisation, is that collective action, innovation, creativity and cross-team collaboration have kept businesses alive not just strong management teams.
The notion of effective heads of businesses is shifting from heroic leadership to outcomes from leadership, based on three elements: direction, alignment and commitment.
Leadership is also about managing seven tensions, which all organisations face:
- balancing efficiency against retaining some redundancy in resources
- maintaining consistency versus building diversity
- preoccupation with operational performance instead of strategic vision
- cohesion versus introducing productive tension
- shifting from compliance to mindfulness and valuing employees
- strengthening central control versus enabling local decision-making
- balancing undertaking strategic reviews against learning from them and taking action
Leyla Tindall, Managing Director, Robert Half Executive Search gave her impressions of how businesses have changed during the past 20 weeks. There has been changes across all industries as well as an acceleration of transformation and digitisation, she said.
Companies that, like Robert Half itself, had already made large investments in technology platforms managed the transition to working from home most effectively.
Employees have borne the emotional brunt of these changes, and there has been a rapid response in adaptation that has relied on their wellbeing and safety, which should be maintained. Some companies have already stated that employees can continue remote working, for example.
Peter Richardson, UK country head at Protiviti, said that as an optimist he agreed with the panel speakers that there is an opportunity to be better than usual, rather than going back to being business as usual. This means learning from the experiences introduced by COVID-19 and reimagining organisations with a new set of values including collaboration and innovation. It also means thinking bigger and bolder, while keeping people at the centre of that process at all times.