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Business Leadership Lessons from the Pandemic

This is the time for radical changes and bold experiments.

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We are now over a year into a global pandemic. A year during which our experience of time itself has been distorted. When lockdowns were implemented around the world in March last year, no one expected it to last this long. I still remember the initial days when Covid still felt far away. Most of us failed to comprehend its magnitude and impact. Today, almost everyone has a friend, or a family member affected by covid. 

The initial novelty of marking life’s important milestones on virtual platforms has given way to wariness. Long term plans have fallen by the wayside as we scrambled to react and adjust to the new reality shaping itself around us. 

For most businesses, there was no prior experience to draw upon from and no amount of crisis planning had prepared anyone for the changes that came. The leaders who rose to the occasion by taking the fear and uncertainty head-on, survived or even thrived. Others who reacted with shock and fear, died a quiet death. 

The three key lessons my team and I learnt from this past year have shaped the way we do business. I share them here in hope it may assist and guide others.

Lesson #1: Revert to a Start-up Mindset

Every business needs a navigation chart. If you are thrown off-course, the first thing to do is identify your position on the map to chart your new course. In practical terms this means, understanding the nature of the challenge and then assessing how long it may potentially last to enable the preparation of a contingency plan. When the pandemic first hit, both these elements were hard to determine. In my experience, the leaders who quickly faced this reality and sifted all available information to make short term plans with the single-minded goal of getting them through the next 30 days, instead of worrying about a longer-term strategy, were far more effective in managing the uncertainty. 

To explain this with a metaphor, if you are thrown in the deep end of the pool, you are focused on staying afloat, not on learning to swim laps. 

In the case of my own organization, we were fortunate that many who’ve been with us from the early days and are today in leadership positions, easily fell back into that start-up mode of operations. Everyone rolled up their sleeves and went to work on anything which needed doing. Every start-up navigates through unchartered waters. Anyone who has been an early employee of a start-up knows that rapid changes and uncertainty are part of the drill. Some even flourish on the adrenalin rush. 

For organizations that have grown too big and layered over the years, the subtext towards their decay was latently evident. In a majority of cases, it was already building up slowly pre-pandemic. Many of these organizations became too bureaucratic, too insular, too inflexible, too slow, too complicated and often more focused on profit than on people. 

The leaders who were forced by the pandemic to finally address these issues and mobilized resources effectively to plug these holes —because a survival reality check hit them— had a better chance of business continuity in the long term.

Lesson #2: Redesign the Wheel 

Whatever has worked for your business to date must be questioned and challenged. This is not the time to rely on the tried and tested formula. If you are still operating on the belief that what brought you success in the past will continue to work in the new reality, you are deepening the hole. This is the time for radical changes and bold experiments.  

Begin by reviewing all areas of your business and identify which functions need to be upgraded and which no longer serve a purpose. Sometimes, when a business has grown too large, it is easy to forget why certain processes were put in place. Companies lose millions of dollars on obsolete systems, functions, and processes. 

Allocate resources to the areas that have the potential to take you into the future. Evaluate everything else dispassionately and determine what is worth upgrading and what needs to be downsized or even eliminated.  Consider investing in technology and systems that are adaptive, and create value, while maximizing resources. As part of this process, you may even find a brand new opportunity for your business. Something that will allow you to evolve into the next phase. It is this evolution that will be the key to your long-term survival.

Lesson #3: Prioritise Your People 

Buildings and technology are nothing without the people. Your people are the most important aspect of your business and must remain your greatest priority. The pandemic taught us that the worst of times brings out the best in people. Identify your warriors, the ones who are energized in the face of crisis and who will galvanize everyone together. 

Loyalty cannot be bought. Nor can it be developed at will. If you have it, it is a priceless asset. Ultimately, it is your people who will help you find and implement solutions. Invest in your people. Help them upskill or reskill as required. 

As a leader, learn to listen to everyone, irrespective of rank or hierarchy. Of the innumerate suggestions you get, there may be that one idea or concept that could change the direction of your business. 

Amid the fear and uncertainty, your people will turn to you to make good on your mission statement and values. If you have a strong culture and a shared sense of purpose, you will weather the storm better than most. 

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