By: Mark Vernouij- Partner at THNK. With an entrepreneurial background in innovation and strategy consulting, he leads innovation programs at THNK
The Chinese word for “crisis” consists of two Chinese characters signifying “danger” and “opportunity” respectively. While COVID-19 represents clear danger – from the risk of loss of life to sickness to economic loss – the crisis also holds tremendous opportunity. If you want it – and if you’re up for it – this can be your crucible moment: a transformative experience that defines your life and your leadership story, a time of adversity where our characters are tested and new possibilities emerge. This is also a time where massive change that wasn’t possible before suddenly becomes possible. Are you up to make the most of it?
The opportunity for personal growth
Over the last few weeks, we’ve had the opportunity to check in with multiple senior executives. More often than not, when we ask them the question, “What have you learned about yourself during this time?” the answer is, “I’ve not really had a chance to stop and think.” And that’s a shame. As the American philosopher, Eric Hoffer, noted, “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” So, how can you seize the personal growth opportunity this crisis represents? Our experience suggests a few key steps:
First, accept and find meaning in the crisis. In a recent article on Harvard Business Review, author Scott Berinato suggests that some of the pain that we are feeling in this crisis is the pain of grieving for a world that we know is slipping away. Berinato discusses the five typical stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – and explores a further stage, namely, finding meaning. Finding meaning and purpose in adversity is key to leading yourself and others through the crisis.
Second, recognize implications of the changing context. A great leader in one context may be a terrible leader in another context. So, what has shifted in your context because of the crisis? And what does the new context demand from your leadership? What do your people need from you? And what does your organization need from you? (Hint: it is not always decisive, top-down, command-and-control leadership that is needed in these times.) Invariably, understanding and catering to your new context requires ring-fencing time and space for introspection, self-reflection, expanding your repertoire, and trying out new approaches.
Third, build your personal resilience, accepting that we are all struggling to address multiple new challenges, from remote working to homeschooling the children to taking care of less fortunate friends and relatives. What do we need to nourish and sustain us, whether it is short stints of exercise during the day, going for walks in nature (where this still is allowed), or reading poetry? As we say at THNK, there are times when it is necessary to “put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.”
The opportunity to reforge relationships with your people
Workplaces are communities, built around the relationships we have with our teams and our peers. The crisis is an opportunity to strengthen those bonds and to redefine what constructive, positive, and empowering workplace interactions look like. Based on our work with organizations around the world, these are some of the key aspects leaders could focus on to reestablish meaningful connections with their employees and to pave the way for a working culture that brings out the best in everyone:
First, lead with humanity and empathy. Crises are crises because they affect people. It is easy to get caught up in the mechanics of numbers, tasks, goals, and decisions, and to forget about the human aspects of leading. Now is the time to lead with humanity and empathy, to create psychological safety for employees, and to ensure that everyone stays safe, included, and connected. If anything, the crisis is showing us our vulnerability as human beings. As leaders, how deeply attuned are we to what our employees are experiencing? How are we creating an environment where emotions can be shared? And to what extent are we willing to show our own vulnerability?
Second, reinforce your organization’s narrative. Just as you as a leader need to find meaning in adversity, it is critical to help employees envision an inspiring future to work toward and to emphasize an organizational purpose that is worth contributing to, both during the crisis and beyond. Employees want to know why they should continue to show up to work amid such difficult circumstances. Are you explicit about who your organization serves and why this is important, especially now?
Third, inspire others to grow from this experience. Crises are unavoidable. Every human life, every company, and every society will at some point in their existence face a destabilization of existing structures and beliefs. This offers an opportunity to learn new skills, to take risks, to emerge stronger on the other side. For leaders, this is an opportunity to show their generosity in supporting others to grow and develop – and by doing so, promoting a growth mindset culture that is strong and innovative. During this crisis, leaders as people are tested like never before. Remember to focus on this important measure of leadership: How are you touching the lives of others in a positive way? We are still in the midst of uncertainty. But it would be a terribly good thing to carry this question in your heart: How do you want your leadership during this time to be remembered?
The opportunity to reimagine your business
“Never waste a good crisis” should be your adage if you want to effectively navigate – and perhaps even flourish – in this new normal we find ourselves in. Not all organizations are taking this to heart, but those who do seem to adopt the following practices: First, take advantage of this time to do things differently. We’ve seen organizations implement massive operational changes, such as remote servicing of hardware and using AI call centers, all of which seemed completely impossible only weeks ago. All you need to do is find the right way to reframe your business. What will be your reframe?
geopolitical, techno-cultural, or economical, or they can be framed in how governments will react. In any case, organizations will need to envision strategies that position themselves to succeed in any scenario, rather than be naive about the preferred scenario. In parallel, they can start reimagining a better future and nudging the system towards the future they want to create.Second, paint different scenarios for your organization. None of us knows how this crisis will play out; not in general and not for our individual organizations. But we can create scenarios along the different axes of change. These axes can be
Third, leverage your employees’ creativity to get there. Once you have envisioned a better future, it’s time to come up with new, relevant products. From hands-free door handles to turning scuba masks into ventilators, we are seeing companies around the world joining the fight against COVID-19. Luxury goods conglomerate LVMH is another example, converting their perfume factory practically overnight to produce hand sanitizer for French hospitals and public health facilities.
Reimagining your organization will not happen by itself. In a survey of over 250 multinational corporations, BCG learned that while most have a rich portfolio of reactive measures, only a minority are identifying and shaping strategic opportunities. This requires time and focus. While thinking about today will probably take at least 80% of your time, it is crucial to start ring-fencing time and budget to start shaping for tomorrow.
* * *
It is becoming increasingly clear that this is no longer our “new normal,” but our “now normal” – a time of overwhelming uncertainty, doubt, and anxiety that at the same time holds much-needed time and space for reflection, introspection, and meditation. We believe that this is a time demanding to be seen as the opportunity it is: the opportunity to develop yourself; the opportunity to reforge relationships with your people, and; the opportunity to reimagine your business.
What is your leadership story going to be?