Ten critical leadership steps for navigating COVID19 – In conversation with veteran Emma Grigson.

Within four short weeks, leaders have found themselves catapulted into three lines of fire:

  1. DISORDER Confronting their own and their organisation’s preparedness to deal with a crisis event
  2. REORDER – Enacting business continuity plans, protecting their people and pivoting strategic direction of their value proposition
  3. NEW [WORLD] ORDER – Attempting to map the imminent restructuring of the global economic order

Last week Emma Grigson and I had a robust conversation about crisis leadership skills. Our interview addressed resounding requests from the LinkedIn family for skills and steps to navigate COVID-19. As an ADF veteran of 15 years, Former Health Operations Executive trained in strategic leadership and with experience in disease management in Washington D.C., Emma provided pragmatic advice on how leaders might tackle the challenge we are facing today, as well as plan for those we will inevitably face tomorrow. I asked her “why the ideas of preparedness and planning seem at odds with the disruption and chaos brought on by crisis”. She proceeded to give a compelling view of planned disruption and disrupted plans.

Let’s break it down…

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Not only is COVID-19 a health pandemic, it’s also a test of leadership skills. As the extent of the economic and social impact continues to evolve, leaders, organisations, and governments are revealed in various states of preparedness, credibility, and adaptability. When contingency planning has not been factored into the fibre of an organisation, leaders and companies miss critical opportunities for honest communication and decisive action in the heat of a crisis.

In our chat, Emma outlined some critical steps that can be embedded into teams right from the planning stage:

1.     Planning (to have no plan)

Whether you call it red teaming, wargaming or stress-testing, planning to have no plan should be part of every organisation’s source code. Why? Because this gives businesses a chance to hack their own strategy before an irretrievable amount of money, time or material resources have been invested.

Skill: Red teaming is a relatively simple process of fast iteration of scenario testing and has additional benefits. The process of making a plan and encouraging counterfactual arguments reveals not only weakness but new opportunities for innovation and growth. The practice also reinforces open communication, two-way respect and increases the responsibility the group feels for owning successful outcomes in the face of uncertainty.

2.     Preparation (rehearsing innovation as an auto-response)

Skill: Rapid-fire role-playing should be dynamic and involve the broader leadership team, serving as robust preparation to embed a level of trust which will prove critical in tough times. When team members are clear on their role, relationships and empowered with prior knowledge, they are able to react without a plan. Leaders need to build core self-checks into the team long before a crisis arrives. For example, improvised critical thinking can be tested for alignment to the company value system, so kneejerk responses are on track to achieve an organisation’s underlying purpose or end goal. When speed of response is critical, it’s this prior understanding and muscle memory that defines what team members will be able to enact.

3.     Execution (never shoot the messenger)

Skill: Framing information to combat fear. Bad news must not be covered up. Leaders should have expert sources of information accessible and at the ready. Communication will be key to consistency when new information is rapidly emerging. While leaders often cannot give certainty in crisis, they can give consistency in the way messages are delivered. Calm, clear messaging that looks outward rather than inward and frames information in a regular style and format will provide reassurance and cut through. In a crisis, the audience will be highly attuned to contradictions, so it is imperative that leaders closely align information and actions (even if the two are changing daily). Business Continuity Plans have been used by many organisations to connect external factors with internal measures. In execution, leaders must take control of what is within their control and further, seek to give back as much control to their people as possible.

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Leadership example: Jacinda Ardern successfully enacted a Stage 4 shutdown over four days with an 80% national approval rating. Key skills deployed: Transparent information-sharing, decisive action, utilisation of a familiar framework from bushfires, empathy, collective narrative-building including a kids’ press conference and live-streamed feeds from home.

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As business as usual reinvents itself virtually before our eyes, leaders are piecing together the scale, pace, and depth of action required to stay solvent while the health crisis abates. Employee well-being, brand reputation, finance management, supply chain, people strategy and legal issues all require attention.

4.     Protect your people

Skill: Projecting a duty of care to stakeholders across the spectrum in times of crisis, is also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fortify relationships, build trust and garner loyalty from our employee and customer base (MIT Sloan, 2020). To care, is to focus outward on the collective and find ways to serve and support others. Your people must believe that their wellbeing is top of mind. How we communicate that authentically and follow up with action will be a key indicator of how we make our people feel at their most vulnerable – a measure that will never be forgotten. More broadly, contributing to the effort to evaluate and solve for mental and physical wellbeing during COVID-19 will define leadership and organisational success, given an economic reboot will require a fully engaged and productive workforce and customer base.

5.     Communicate leadership (not followership)

Skill: Communicating with influence requires leaders to listen at least as much as they speak. Good leaders are careful to ensure targeted comms that solve a problem directly for an audience. Great leaders influence their audience to solve wider problems for the collective. 

Leadership cannot follow. To have influence, one must rely on purpose, credibility and relevance. The latter factor seems to be the one leaders are struggling with. To many people, COVID-19 continues to represent a crisis felt financially and emotionally, rather than as an imminent health threat. Rational explanations and reassurance need to be complemented by an emotional response (AICD, March 2020).

Quickly leaders must drive and own a compelling narrative that shows recognition of the danger; empathy for the predicament, comprehension of the latest available data, action to ensure infrastructure to deal with implications, and ability to influence a united behavioural outcome. In the world of COVID-19, there are two levels of technical skills proving paramount: interpretation of the incoming information data; and the competence to use online messaging well to maximise leadership potential.

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Leadership Example: Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson successfully demonstrated powerful leadership communication in his message to stakeholders when he spoke honestly about the losses his company is suffering and committed to forgoing a salary for the remainder of the year and cutting those of his executive team by 50 percent.

6.     Scenario planning

Skill: Scenario planning will play into agile strategy formulation across financial management, product design, workforce mapping and supply chain innovation. The definition of scenario planning is identifying a specific set of uncertainties, different “realities” of what might happen in the future of your business” (Mariton, March 2020). Each scenario should contain just enough detail to assess the likely success or failure of the strategic option. Scenarios may be built around one single question or sets of variables. These different realities could probe economic outcomes, product demand, supply chain resilience, competition manoeuvres, technology adoption, geopolitical instability, etc. One way to explore each scenario is to build in a SWOT analysis to weigh internal strengths and weaknesses against external threats and opportunities implicated.

7.     Mapping talent and deployable skills

Skill: Resourced based value creation suggests that while in the COVID-19 holding pattern, leaders should consider the value of time. One million jobs lost equates to around one billion hours of potential reskilling or upskilling opportunity in the next six months (ABC, 2020). Australia’s economy has slipped to rank 93rd in complexity (WEF, 2020), meaning our resilience in the face of various crises is low. To retain a future competitive advantage globally, companies need to ensure that technology adoption, as well as tech literacy and proficiency are inherent in their business models. Some leaders are already utilising the downturn to clear up that database and rethink product delivery, but pushing further and automating legacy processes or training people in high-demand future skillsets will likely prove advantageous. Moreover, reviewing the underutilised or potential skills of the current workforce enables a fast pivot of resources when new demand for new products comes to fruition.

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8.     One eye on the ground, one on the horizon

Skill: Think slow think fast. Leaders who can retain an intimate understanding of where their employee, customer and shareholder sentiment sits combined with a big picture analysis of government priorities and policies, global epidemiological indicators and social behaviour trends will be on the front foot when competitive positions are reset. Mapping next horizons can drive sustained engagement, role clarity and productivity as the bounce back suddenly requires the workforce to rev up again. Optimism founded in fact is a leadership trait worthy of special mention. Optimistic leaders naturally inspire and motivate those around them, in turn manifesting and detecting opportunity sooner than others.

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Leadership Example: Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh, who wrote a letter to employees encouraging them to focus on the crisis’ silver lining. “One of the things motivating me through this difficult time is the idea that we can learn and adapt and adjust so we emerge stronger as a result of this test,” he wrote. The crisis “will pass. We will get through this together and be a better and stronger company as a result of it.” (The Conversation, 2020)

9.     Reimagining the entire business system within a new context

‘Institutions that reinvent themselves to make the most of better insight and foresight, as preferences evolve, will disproportionally succeed’ (McKinsey, 2020). Contactless delivery, supply chains closer to the end-user, technology adoption to drive productivity when labour is unavailable will likely prove to be competitive advantages. 

EY analysis predicts, “To operate successfully in this marketplace, businesses need a mindset of adaptive performance and a new framework to respond to volatility and grasp the opportunities that are now emerging.” The framework focuses on a reassessment of sustainable value, and can be overlaid with analysis of emerging conditions from the scenario planning discussed earlier.

Essentially, leaders must take this opportunity to disrupt themselves as well as their organisations. Many leaders are beginning to give voice to the suspicion that while COVID-19 will have devastating consequences, the world needed a reset. That our pace, consumption, way of life, was somehow getting away from us. Leaders who can recognise the opportunity to build a new normal, to dramatically restructure the economic and social order in which business and society have traditionally operated, will find themselves with a new plan, when the first bullet is fired. 

And an army of new world leaders, ready for action.