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Leading Through Crisis

By Dominick Sutton, BoardEx and Ali Palmer, Odgers Interim

Ali Palmer, Partner and Head of the Consumer and Telecoms Practice at Odgers Interim, and Dominick Sutton, Chief Data Officer of BoardEx, discuss leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic and look at how senior management can effectively lead their team through economic difficulty, ensuring business continuity and the future state of working ways.

While business leaders have years of experience managing and leading teams, the recent Odgers Berndtson Leadership Confidence Index has revealed that 85% of senior leaders do not have confidence in their leadership’s ability to manage disruption effectively. The Index, in conjunction with Harvard Business Review Analytic Services, is a very timely publication and has exposed a very real weakness for organizations across the globe going into a highly disruptive period.

One of the biggest barriers to managing disruption is a resistance to change. In the Index, there was a sweeping consensus amongst senior executives that there is a lack of collective vision which in turn has resulted in difficulty getting the all-important ‘buy-in’ and engagement from the extended leadership team and the broader organizational structure. Widespread collaboration from colleagues of all levels facilitates continuous evolution of the organization, but without this there is an inability to be agile, to operate at pace, or to adapt quickly to unforeseen circumstances. From what we have seen in this current example of disruption, it’s clear that the most successful organizations are those that have been able to leverage agility for a seamless transition to remote working, to pivot their business model or to modify their business planning in the short, medium and long-term.

To overcome this barrier to change, senior leaders must establish more open and consistent communication in tandem with fostering collaboration. Transparency is achieved by loosening the top-down approach to allow for more comprehensive engagement in organisational decision-making and empowering staff to be involved in change. This will be a challenge for senior leaders as they grapple with new managerial options for less direct control and oversight of their team. It is a change that needs to be immediate, but a culture change usually requires an evolution over an elongated period of time. Business leaders need to be able to ease their teams into the new expectations and be conscious that such a change cannot happen overnight; there needs to be a nurturing period (albeit shorter than usual).

The business-critical decision-making that takes place during disruption is what drives an organization and sets the pace for adaptation. However, this is contingent on strong team cohesion and trust in the leader to make the right informed decisions. The leader has to be well-versed in transformation through uncertainty, as well as visionary. It is critical to plan for how the organization will adapt in the face of economic change in order to not only survive disruption but to come out of it in a better position than ever before. This requires the right balance of ambition and pragmatism achieved through an understanding of situations, their impact and their potential.

A critical focus of leaders to foster the adaptation required to lead through disruption is not the infrastructure and systems, but the people. Across the organization, there needs to be strong, efficient, and effective teams of people working as a collective to face the next waves of disruption. Senior management should be using this time to reflect on their current state and the strength of their team, taking into consideration their new needs and if they have the talent with the capability to thrive in the new market.

It must also be remembered that this focus on people is not restricted to the internal organization.  Relationships with the external network of stakeholders, including customers, suppliers (including suppliers of capital), regulators and advisors must also be maintained and strengthened.  Any adjustment has to include steps to maintain and increase the resilience of the firm’s external relationship network.  At times of business stress, these relationships can often prove to be a vital asset in determining the success or failure of any change of strategy, tactics, or execution.  This means that a balance may have to be struck between a policy to increase agility and one that maintains the critical relationships needed to weather the crisis and to build for the future.

A problem is that the relationship network is often poorly understood, inadequately mapped, and undervalued, even at the leadership level.  Care must, therefore, be taken that any changes made to adapt for the new circumstances also increase (or, at the worst, do not reduce) network resilience.  Management should reflect on their critical external relationships, identifying those that could be affected by any change as well as detecting gaps that may need strengthening.

The right team needs to be in place and prepared for the subsequent ups and downs presented as we navigate through the fallout and the adjustments to the new normal as the market settles. The changes organizations are going through are momentous and may require extra support to manage the situation at hand. Calling upon a highly-skilled interim executive who is well-versed in navigating disruption and managing organizations through difficulty can bring a new skill set to the leadership of an organization and strengthen governance. An external, fresh pair of eyes facilitates a new perspective on the situation and their expertise in planning, managing, and executing recovery or growth plans is an invaluable asset for weathering this current storm.  They may also immediately address any critical gaps identified in the relationship network review.

We are in an uncertain and unprecedented time as the pandemic continues to spread and cause economic disorder. Across the globe, organizations need strong leadership to guide their teams through the unsettled landscape with informed long-term and short-term decision-making. More than ever, having a cohesive unified team communicating transparently is mission-critical for the immediate needs of the company. But it is clear there must be strong strides towards future-proofing for the imminent repercussions and the new normal now being cultivated.

This article was written by Dominick Sutton, Chief Data Officer at BoardEx, and Ali Palmer, Partner and Head of the Consumer and Telecoms Practice at Odgers Interim

About Odgers Interim:

Odgers Interim is a world leading provider of interim management services with 20 years’ experience in c-suite and director-level interim placements.  Our 27 consultants are industry thought leaders and trusted advisors to public and commercial organizations across 24 different sectors.  As sector specialists, our team provides an unparalleled level of expertise and guidance.