By Shamila Gopalan
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives causing widespread disruption where we see our health being compromised and loved ones dying. The global economy has been scarred, and businesses, consumer behaviour, lifestyles and social interactions have been profoundly affected.
In Australia, companies of all sizes are looking for ways to survive, while simultaneously learning to serve customers differently.
According to a May 2020 report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 69% of businesses said they would be impacted by a reduction in demand for goods and services over the next two months, with 72% expecting cash flow issues.
We can reasonably assume that the coming months and years will be a trying time for many people across the globe. But at the same time, business leaders have an opportunity to view this crisis as a chance to grow and retool.
Let’s look at some of the challenges and opportunities leaders face as they get their businesses and workforces back up and running:
At a time when most leaders have never experienced anything similar, the significant challenge is to figure out a path forward.
As leaders focus on making fast decisions they cannot let their biases and other irrationalities derail their decision-making capabilities.
During this challenging period, there are five behaviours that leaders should focus on and look for in their leadership teams:
Leaders need to be brave in thinking independently and making difficult decisions. They are not bystanders to what is happening right now, but active participants.
Stacy Caprio of Her.CEO concurs. “A courageous leader has the ability to look at the data and make decisions, even when these decisions go against the grain of public opinion, the media, and general public panic. Not many leaders have this ability, but a true leader is able to make decisions independent of mass fear and panic.”
True leaders need a sense of self-efficacy with a mindset that they can act and make decisions that will improve outcomes. With these in place, they will need to be resilient, and able to withstand and work through the problems they face, and the resulting public scrutiny around their decisions.
Purpose-driven companies that offer employees a sense of certainty have an edge over those that don’t.
Leaders must be able to align with their organisation’s principles and values, connecting them to societal purpose and explain their “reason for being”. This source of belonging, engagement, and motivation is very important overall, but especially critical while emerging from a period of crisis. They must be able to create a shared narrative to guide and galvanise people around strategy.
Business leaders must display authenticity and empathy in all they do, and be able to sense the context of the situation in order to communicate effectively with different audiences.
A great example of this is New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Her leadership style is one of empathy in a crisis that encourages people to fend for themselves. Her messages are clear, consistent, and simultaneously sobering and soothing. Her message resonates on an emotional level.
People feel that Ardern “doesn’t preach at them; she’s standing with them,” Helen Clark, New Zealand’s prime minister from 1999 to 2008.
In challenging times, the ability to show openness and vulnerability is critical for a leader to build rapport with others.
During this period organisations have been learning agile techniques on the fly. In the heat of the moment, they have identified their most pressing problems, and they have deployed cross-functional teams to tackle them. The opportunity now is to develop an Agile organization that outlasts the pandemic. This means embedding these techniques and behaviours systematically and committing to additional Agile teams that are charged with generating innovation at a faster pace. Instead of attacking problems as they arise, spread Agile principles throughout the organisation, team by team, step by step.
People everywhere have been forced to adapt to digital as means of communication. We’ve seen apps like Zoom, Microsoft Team and Slack become more popular as companies strive to ensure their employees are able to work effectively and efficiently from their homes.
Just as businesses have had to confront a changed work environment, they also have to face changed customer behaviours. No longer are customers ready to haphazardly venture out of the house to shop, instead many have opted for digital services. Companies will need to ensure that their digital channels for engaging with customers are on par, or better than, their competitors.
According to recent data, we have catapulted five years ahead in business and consumer digital adoption in a space of eight weeks! And it’s going to accelerate beyond the recovery of the pandemic.
Business leaders must embrace digital tools and practices now, even if they were hesitant about them before. However, they must also be conscious of the associated challenges and threats that come from a reliance on technology.
As economies and businesses emerge from the pandemic, reopen worksites, and operate in the period of uncertainty, there is an opportunity to do well while doing good. There is an opportunity to make sensible financial decisions in the short term while establishing a strategic framework, resulting in a sustainable and thriving company in the long run.
Accomplishing this requires leaders — CEOs, COOs, CMOs and the rest of the C-suite — to go beyond talking points to actually living their organisational purpose. Being authentic and transparent, regardless how uncomfortable, will provide answers to the questions people have been asking themselves for the past few months. And, in the end, it will separate high-performing companies from the pack.
Shamila Gopalan is an entrepreneur and a corporate leader having been at the helm of building businesses independently and in Fortune 500 firms globally, from CNN to National Geographic Channel through to Fox International for close to 22 years across three continents. In 2016, she was awarded one of Asia Top 50 Female Leaders, and an advisory board member with Brilliant Women Global (BWG), a highly collegiate network of women available for Board roles and transformation projects.
She has built two businesses and exited one before moving to Australia 3 years ago. Now on her third venture, HerWit, she continues her journey of being an entrepreneur with a purpose. Her mission is to amplify women to create more female role models and thought leaders pushing the needle in gender equality for all women and the next generation of girls.