By Claude Ringuet and Jason Johnson
During these unprecedented times organisations and leaders of industry face a myriad of extraordinarily complex challenges. For those who led through the GFC and SARS, there are a number of lessons learnt that can be revisited now that extend well beyond prudent financial and operational management and harness the most important asset any business has - its people.
This ongoing pandemic will test the mettle of the best CEO’s and functional leaders. It will expose those who do not have the strategic foresight to balance short term needs with the longer-term actions required to ensure the survival and effective rebound of businesses when the move to the new normal begins.
In order to stay on course, we at Johnson Partners see a range of actions that can help our clients during COVID-19 and beyond. While we in Australia appear to have had great success in slowing the spread of the virus, it is abundantly clear that many of our trading partners are still in the midst of coming to grips with COVID-19. As we move to a new normal, we see many of our clients across different sectors addressing four key areas:
1. Focus on Talent
During prior pandemics like SARS and MERS it became apparent very rapidly that putting the health and well-being of employees first was obviously paramount. Aside from prudent financial management, the most forward-thinking organisations and agile leaders focused on developing people management strategies that not only sustained organisations during the crisis but also positioned them to move into recovery more rapidly. Much the same has happened with COVID-19 such as the rapid response to mobilise whole workforces to work from home.
Some leading ASX listed companies were very quick to mitigate potential health risks to staff and this has no doubt helped to stem the spread of the virus. Moving beyond this shift, CEOs and HR leaders have to now play a pivotal role in leading companies through and beyond the crisis. This requires managing safety concerns of staff to driving fact-based communications on a regular basis and to developing robust working from home policies.
Right now, a number of priorities remain critical:
- Managing employee engagement: Leaders and emerging talent should be using the crisis to show real empathy and EQ in their management of teams and the business. Being self-aware now and showing genuine compassion for staff will lead to more engaged and committed teams in these times of tremendous upheaval. This considered engagement will also draw out true leaders versus those who cannot thrive in times of uncertainty and high pressure.
- Identifying future stars: As the crisis continues to unfold, engagement across the leadership team to discuss and assess how the next level(s) are managing in the unfolding environment will be a vital step to take around talent development and career progression. Individuals who are able to lead with poise and thrive in this remote working and challenged landscape will have the EQ and IQ needed to succeed when the new normal sets in. Time invested in assessing people’s capabilities now and exiting the trenches briefly to do this will be invaluable.
- Upgrade critical roles that aren’t up to the challenge: While continuity of leadership during a crisis has some advantages, if there is an executive/s in the leadership team who is struggling to perform in the new operating conditions, sometimes the best answer is to swiftly move to appoint a more seasoned and capable executive. During the GFC, for example, there was a significant trend to upgrade CFOs and Treasurers capable of rebuilding balance sheets during a period of tremendous turbulence.
2. Manage Communications
Without stating the obvious, leaders must now be communicating with facts and with appropriate frequency. Leaders must prioritise stability for teams and give employees a sense of genuine security. Engaging with staff and being in regular remote contact can’t be overstated. Now is the time to over communicate in the new remote working environment and to test and leverage new digital and social platforms for keeping teams connected.
In the COVID-19 lockdown, walking the halls and hosting face to face meetings will be something off the radar for some time yet, but there are many additional communication tools available - such as Chat tools, standard video conferencing tools and platforms like WhatsApp, WeChat and Zoom for example. The key now is for organisations to adequately manage the usage of these platforms to ensure data security and management of valuable data, while still ensuring that frequent and relevant communications are being disseminated beyond mass emails.
Timing of communication matters greatly as this situation continues to unfold. We recommend that leaders set up a regular cadence and structure for team communications. Doing this will free up talent to focus on the tasks at hand while knowing that regular check-ins are in place. It avoids a deluge of requests for information which can clog up the system at a time when executional focus is critical. Creating and widely sharing a regularly updated summary of facts and implications around the current state of play is invaluable, so that time is not wasted debating what the facts are — or worse, making different assumptions about not just the current state of COVID-19 but organisational wide plans for addressing it and moving beyond it.
A living digital document can enhance speed by avoiding the rigamarole of issuing and approving multiple documents, and also reduces risk since it can easily be updated or withdrawn as necessary. Organisations who have not managed the move to the cloud or taken IT and digital infrastructure with the right amount of rigour will now be experiencing the pain of these decisions. Use this current environment as an opportunity to be creative with different approaches to communication, be it email, text/instant messaging, social media, phone, video or discovering something entirely new.
3. Be Future Ready – Operations
Optimising the transition to the future means looking for opportunities amid all of the current chaos. Just as important as communications and managing top talent, is the need to be agile in terms of supply chain planning and organisational wide adoption of digital. COVID-19 is and will force executives to think creatively to reorient assets and resources in ways not thought of pre the current landscape.
Now it is more critical than ever for leaders to be focusing on rethinking supply chain and logistics models and bringing sourcing and supply closer to its point of consumption and this applies regardless of the industry an organisation is operating in. Service and Manufacturing businesses must now be ensuring that talent are focused on new ways of operating, new ways of winning with customers, consumers and business partners.
It is imperative that the digital lens is at the core of all thinking now. Optimisation planning has to start in earnest and requires the right talent to deliver the kind of innovative thinking that will be needed to thrive in the new normal. Many organisations have been caught out by COVID-19 and the shift in ways of working due to poor technology architectures/cloud environments. Leaders must now push technical top talent to the forefront to ensure that operating environments and working practices are digitally enabled to support both staff and customers/consumers.
COVID-19 will test just how well technology platforms perform on a massive scale. You can stress test how productive employees are at home. Learn how to keep your teams engaged, motivated and inspired when they are socially distanced. Digitise now, be future ready. And do this with the right talent and right level of investment and innovative thinking.
4. Lead with Agility – Don’t drop the ball on the turnaround
While meeting the needs of top talent (and critically retaining them) and driving proactive communication, HR executives and leadership teams must enable select teams to think about the longer-term strategy and do so without being pulled into the day-to-day crisis response process. Leaders and top talent more than ever need to be forward thinking and developing the right strategic path to see organisations ready themselves for the new ways of working and the new normal. Leadership teams must recognise that we will not revert to old ways of working, COVID-19 has changed the playing field for the long term.
Returning businesses to operational health after this severe shutdown will be a challenge that most organisations could never have planned for. Most industries will need to reactivate their entire supply chain, even as the differential scale and timing of the impact of coronavirus mean that global supply chains face disruption in multiple geographies. The weakest point in the chain will determine the success or otherwise of a return to rehiring, training, and attaining previous levels of workforce productivity.
Leaders must therefore reassess their entire business system and plan for contingent actions in order to return their business to effective production at pace and at scale. These shifts and their impact on how we live, how we work, and how we use technology will emerge more clearly over the coming weeks and months.
In summary, as the storm continues to evolve it is vital that organisations pivot and focus on sending clear messages to employees and customers. Business leaders must ensure employee and team needs are met and that information is readily accessible. Remote working policies and procedures must be clear. Consider replacing non-performing executives. Operations should be reimagined to ensure inventory levels and supply chain strategies are more robustly future proofed and that technology adoption is accelerated to ensure customer engagement is optimal and service delivery is protected. And finally, talent retention in this new world will be vital to enabling organisations to scale and succeed in the new normal. People will remain the key point of difference for those organisations who succeed and fail in the post COVID-19 era.
Johnson Partners is a next generation consulting firm working in Board Search & Advisory, Executive Search and Leadership Succession. We are proud partners of the Australian Investment Council.