Most nations and enterprises have had to endure a number of crises over the decades. Some have been massive, like the financial meltdown of 2008, or a targeted tragedy like 9/11, or even a regional hurricane. As a CIO, I experienced them all and several others in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
The current Coronavirus pandemic is different in many ways in that it is global, invisible, rapidly moving, and very threatening to us all in a very personal way. The scale and duration are unknown, however, like all the others, it will run its course and ultimately subside with a new normal and many lessons learned. What we do as leaders to make sure our people and our company, first, survives and then, thrives, far into the future, really matters. I want to share what I’ve found to be a durable approach to leadership in times like these.
Panic or denial are not attractive leadership traits. This requires tough-minded optimism. Early recognition and anticipation are keys to the proper reaction. This should trigger a sequence of actions.
First, Stabilize the Organization.
Bring your teams together, listen to them, show them genuine concern for what they are going through, and share the facts as you know them – good, bad, and ugly. Listen to all team members and perspectives. This accomplishes two key things that matter: a better fact base and a shared reality. And don’t do this just one time. Keep the conversation going so you can do what you need to do, but take whatever actions need to be taken within a shared context that your team understands.
Next, Shape the Demand for Business Response & Strategic Value.
This is a critical moment with an opportunity to really change the game – from what’s “important now” to what’s “urgent now and strategic over time”. The external forces and immediate business needs will dictate that you are responsive with some things necessary to scale and support very dynamic short-term business changes. You owe it to the company to keep the bigger, more strategic, and longer-term initiatives and objectives in play – to do no harm for the future.
To do this, ruthless prioritization is critical. This is no time to continue business as usual habits of trying – and probably struggling anyway – to satisfy all incoming business demand. Engage your team and your business leaders to take a hard look at stopping or deferring some things so you can reallocate as many financial and people resources as possible to things that are urgent (maybe call those “tactical business response”) and/or important (maybe call those “strategic initiatives”). Go short and go long – kill everything else that’s just incremental improvement in the middle.
Also, Build Organizational Muscle.
As a good leader, you probably already have a good idea about upgrading the organization and a plan for improving your internal productivity. A crisis, most times, gives you license to accelerate those plans.
No doubt you’ll be given financial targets to hit. Try not to have a knee jerk reaction and just start making cuts across the board. Get the facts quickly, then make the changes according to some key principles and a longer-range vision and plan that you can articulate.
Use this as an opportunity to intentionally reshape your leadership, culture, workforce pyramids, and talent base. Also, use the crisis as an opportunity to bust the bureaucracy, lean out your processes, rationalize duplicate tooling, shut down or re-platform some of the applications and supported technology, renegotiate some key contracts, and accelerate automation.
The key is to have a plan, know what you would do and use the crisis to advance your strength and capability. If you don’t, you’ll be weaker and hamper the resilience of your enterprise to thrive while the crisis abates.
Later, Return to Playing Offense on the Transformational Journey.
As the public health, social, political, and economic climate begins to recover and find its new normal and as you work through the stages outlined above, you should seize the opportunity — as early as appropriate — to return to playing offense. Most, if not all, companies have at least begun their transformational journey. All will need to resume transformation to thrive in the modern era, post-crisis. As soon as possible, recalibrate your Current State, Future Vision, and roadmap or Gap Closing Plan – at least at a high level. Align with your leadership team and key business partners on that updated multi-year transformation plan. From there, begin to re-engage in investment and change to drive the transformation.
Based on the first few steps in leading through the crisis, you should have the shared experience and success of surviving, a reshaped and refocused demand picture, and newly built and exercising organizational and productivity muscles. Now, it’s time to put it all together to move beyond “survive” and into the “thrive” phase – to get back to your transformational journey.
The Leader’s Choice
The overall fundamental mandate for digital transformation in the modern era has not been stopped by COVID-19. You have a choice to either lead or just be reactive. No doubt the wind is always blowing in a crisis. It’s a question of how we set our sails as to whether it’s a headwind or tailwind. Those who lead through this crisis will have a chance of jumping ahead of the curve on the bigger transformational journey. Think about it. What kind of leaders will you and your team be in these dynamic times?
Author: Charlie Feld, Founder, The Feld Group Institute
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