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Business As Unusual: Leadership Lesson by Ankesh Arora, CEO of A Square Group

You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

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On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization formally declared COVID-19 a pandemic, underscoring the precipitous global uncertainty that had plunged lives and livelihoods into a still-unfolding crisis. A year later, daily reports of variant outbreaks—and of waxing and waning infection and mortality rates—continue to heighten anxiety, stir grief, and cast into question the contours of our collective social and economic future. Never in modern history have countries had to ask citizens around the world to stay home, curb travel, and maintain physical distance to preserve the health of families, colleagues, neighbors, and friends. And never have we seen job loss spike so fast, nor the threat of economic distress loom so large.

The coronavirus is not only a health crisis of immense proportion—it’s also an imminent restructuring of the global economic order. It has become quite evident that we will not return to the “old” normal. In fact, we may not return to any “normal”. Your state, industry, organization—or unconscious mind—may be pinning hopes on some other event or date after which some version of “rescue” will come: a vaccine, a cure, a reliable and cheap test, the acquisition of herd immunity. But to review the brutal facts, none of these developments are likely to change the social dynamics in the foreseeable short term. The possibility remains that there may never be a fully effective vaccine or cure; this virus may be something that we live with and manage for years to come. Doing so will mean changing elements of our social interaction in unprecedented ways that may well lead to irrevocable social changes. As such, how can business leaders begin navigating to what’s next? 

First and foremost, the changes can no longer be categorized as “good” or “bad”, as it is incumbent on us to make them “good”. Sensing new opportunities in the midst of the disruption triggered by a crisis is the way forward for most businesses. Since the pandemic has compelled businesses of all colors to reimagine their business model, leaders are scrambling to reapply their core expertise in unique ways. Leaders today face two great questions: how to survive, and how to capitalize on new opportunities. As one CEO said, “A fabricated or real crisis is an essential ingredient for effective change management, as an existential threat breaks down many barriers to change. With such an unprecedented crisis, it is stretching and breaking apart even the strongest teams. What do we need to do, to view this terrible crisis as an opportunity, to pivot and make changes that will allow our organizations to survive beyond the crisis?” Others are wondering if the crisis might contain opportunities: “How can we take advantage of COVID, and think about emerging stronger than our competition at the end of this?” in the words of one top executive.

After navigating through different industries over the years, I, as the CEO of “A Square”, would recommend leaders and companies to think of the two A’s: ADJUST the core, and ADAPT to new opportunities.

ADJUST THE CORE

Adjusting the core is partially about becoming more and more effective and efficient in the company’s core business. The focus is improvement, not exponential growth. Improvement is always possible. Yes, it may be small, but even extremely small improvements can be worthwhile. Look at the example of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, who continued to practice, focusing on shaving milliseconds off his time. Phelps never stopped improving. The engineer in me reckons complete elimination of all waste in pursuit of the most efficient methods. Cost cutting is inevitable in dire times, but the current crisis is an opportunity for an intense questioning of processes—including in areas where your company already excels. We have seen that companies can save 20-30 percent on costs by improving processes. Whether it be eliminating duplicate procedures or useless and cumbersome paperwork, there are always ways to streamline operations. There is no limit to continuous improvement.

ADAPT TO NEW OPPORTUNITIES

Some companies have reacted by laying off staff and closing their doors, hunkering down and waiting for the storm to pass. Others have decided to pivot and adapt to the changing environment. They have come up with innovative ideas of how to retool or reconfigure their operations, to keep their doors open and their employees working. Some are big, like General Motors, a car company that is making ventilators. Others are small, mom-and-pop restaurants that are making up fruit-and-vegetable boxes for people and delivering them door-to-door. These responses may be focused on the immediate emergency of the pandemic with the idea of returning to business-as-usual at some point. Other companies are making deeper changes that are changing their business-as-usual models for good. For instance, businesses have been forced to leverage ecommerce in unexpected ways to survive the COVID-19 outbreak, but in the end these changes led to a long-term revision of their business models, which will continue to add value after the crisis subsides. 

Exploiting opportunities to make incremental improvements to existing operations while also exploring future possibilities for innovations and solutions is the hallmark of an ambidextrous organization. People who survive disasters are the ones who are able to regain cognitive function quickly, assess their new environment accurately, and take goal-directed action to survive within it. The brutal facts are that it will be months or even years before it will be safe to breathe in each other’s faces again. It is possible that the entire infrastructure of theater as we know it will fall apart and have to be rebuilt. And yet—theater will never die. Theater is in the DNA of human civilization. Humans recite, tell stories, move together in groups. It’s what we do. 

So just adjust and adapt.

About the Author:

Ankesh Arora is an Indian-American entrepreneur, best known as the founder and CEO of A Square Group, a global branding and advertising agency that creates experiences at the intersection of technology, design, culture, and brand stories; and ARORA New York, a real estate investment and acquisition firm in New York City focused on acquiring residential and commercial properties. Arora has been featured on Forbes, CNBC and New York Magazine.

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