The coronavirus has taught the business community a lot of valuable lessons. One of the most lasting and important is: Leaders have to be ready for disruption — or else. The COVID-19 pandemic, while certainly unique, isn’t just a one and done situation. Throughout their careers, leaders will have to navigate several industry altering disruptions.
As we all know, the pace of change is accelerating. Disruption within industries is now commonplace. Therefore, leaders must be prepared. To be prepared, they must build a set of capabilities that enable them to lead through disruption. Regardless of the size of the organization, the ability to implement ideas quickly, to facilitate operational excellence, to pivot frequently, to fail fast, to collaborate, to communicate, are among the critical leadership capabilities needed to succeed in today’s ever changing marketplace.
Consider leaders who run small businesses or entrepreneurial ventures, for instance. These organizations tend to operate from one shared vision and mission. It’s not uncommon for these kinds of companies to be innovative, competitive and have a culture that promotes speed and action. In general, however, the leaders who run these organizations may be inexperienced. As a result, their organizations may lack sound, structured processes to drive accountability and alignment, and that can be extremely problematic in a crisis.
Leaders who run large businesses, on the other hand, established companies with strong brands, have often had time to develop more experience. Therefore, they understand how to promote accountability in their teams or within the workforce. Where they may fall short is in their ability to rally the workforce behind a shared vision and mission. They may be leading organizational cultures that react too slowly, which contributes to a lack of innovation. These conditions almost certainly ensure that this kind of leader will have difficulty responding appropriately to business or market disruption, where the ability to pivot quickly is critical to survival.
To ensure they can effectively manage their teams through a crisis with their wits intact and business goals top of mind, leaders in small and large companies will need to adopt traits, capabilities and best practices from each other. Then, and only then, can leaders capitalize on the opportunities afforded by disruption. In simple terms, I describe these characteristics as orgagility; the ability to drive new ideas to implementation rapidly and to pivot frequently.
Leaders shouldn’t just talk about these characteristics. Leaders should be capable of implementing and leveraging them effectively within the modern workforce. For instance, these orgagility characteristics require leaders to create inclusive work environments and to build diverse teams. Leveraging diversity and inclusion have been mainstays in terms of leadership best practices. Unfortunately, their application is often spotty and uneven, at best.
A diverse workforce provides a leader with access to a plethora of perspectives. This can be invaluable during disruption when it’s important to find solutions to pressing issues, and it creates a big competitive advantage if leveraged properly. However, unless the leader can simultaneously create an inclusive work environment and culture, he or she will more than likely leave this opportunity on the shelf. Creating an inclusive environment enables the leader to not only access those diverse perspectives, it helps him or her to activate and inculcate those diverse insights, suggestions and innovative ideas into key areas of the business.
Specifically, an inclusive leader will create contributions that manifest in strategy, planning, execution and in decision-making. Those who leverage diversity and inclusion effectively will be unafraid to entertain new ideas that challenge the status quo. Opening your mind to new ideas will create opportunities that could propel the business forward in meaningful ways.
By way of example, in my former job as the VP of Operations for the Chicago Tribune, I promoted an African American corporate leader, Jeff, into a key leadership role. Many people cautioned me against it because he wasn’t the “right fit.” Essentially, what does a corporate guy know about operations? Quite a lot actually. Jeff had very diverse experiences, but all of his knowledge and skills sets were not well known in the company.
That promotion turned out to be one of the best staffing moves I ever made. Jeff brought immense value to the business, contributing innovative thinking, leadership and culture building skills that created a meaningful, positive impact on his department’s success. Looking back, the decision was not difficult because I learned something very important: Don’t put people in boxes, and never let labels and social prejudices keep you from doing the right thing.
Finally, leaders looking to boost their ability to execute and perform in the midst of disruption or crisis must stay current and relevant. Specifically, you must remain current on the ins and outs of the ecosystem you are operating in, and be able to identify emerging trends. Changing trends can provide valuable insights on how your business will need to adapt, and what you need to do to stay ahead of shifting consumer needs and the competitive landscape .
Be prepared to anticipate the impact of changing trends, and never underestimate the degree of that impact.
The biggest mistake a leader can make is to operate under the mindset that, “this too shall pass.”
Great leaders see, and capitalize on the opportunities in a crisis and in disruptive times. My friend and business partner Jeremy Gutsche, author of “Create the Future + The Innovation Handbook: Tactics for Disruptive Thinking” and CEO of Trend Hunter, a global trend-spotting platform and innovation consultancy, uses a wonderful example about Fortune Magazine to illustrate this point.
Fortune was founded in 1929, three months after the Wall Street Crash. Now, logically, it makes no sense to launch a luxury business publication — one priced at $1 an issue — at that time. That price tag made it the most expensive magazine ever launched, but founder Henry Luce realized that people were out of work because of decisions made behind boardroom doors in New York. “Fortune offered a glimpse behind those doors: How did we get here, and when might we emerge?” The magazine presented a simple answer to a new consumer need. Half a million subscribers later, Fortune ultimately made $7 million in profit during the Great Depression.
The moral of this article is, be prepared. As a leader, you cannot “catch up” to a crisis or to disruption. You’re either ready, or you’re not. For prepared leaders, crisis and disruption are opportunities in the making. Capturing those opportunities can have a lasting, and sustainable impact on your success and on your company’s success.
Tony Hunter is the founder of TWH Inc, an advisory services firm, and chairman of Revolution Enterprises, a cannabis company. For more information on his work, or to get in touch with him, please visit: https://tonywhunter.com