The more I speak to business leaders the more I realise that the scale of Covid-19 pandemic’s impact has not fully sunk in. Many business organisations are feeling the pressure I have written about on various times, of simultaneously juggling with surviving the immediate crisis and planning for a radically changed future. Many organisations across the world are facing an existential level threat not seen since World War II. Their leaders and board of directors are experiencing enormous anxieties fuelled not only by the threats to the survival of their companies, but by the uncertainty of how long this disruption will be with us and what business environment will they operate in when finally this is all over.
What however strikes me, is that while it is true that these are challenging times, like the world has rarely seen like, I still meet business leaders who resist dealing with such a challenge in new ways. I still meet business leaders thinking they can somehow muddle themselves and their business through this. I still meet business leaders who are afraid to ask for help, thinking they still do not need it. Many times all this resistance comes with a packaged behaviour which includes the following traits:
- Narrow thinking: Instead of pushing business leaders to be more innovative (i.e.“necessity is the mother of invention”) during such a crisis, it is however easier and a more human response to seek comfort and certainty — to fall back on existing remedies (i.e., “what we always did or what worked well in the past” ). Instead senior managers and board directors should be asking any of these critical questions: What are other business organisations doing right now — especially potential new competitors in our space? Is there a disaster plan in pace and, if yes, is it being well implemented?
- Follow the Leader: When feeling threatened, people tend to look up to the leader for inspiration, insight and strength. But top management and board directors should resist the urge to instinctively defer to the highest-ranking leader and instead make sure that they are taking advantage of the skills and perspectives of all leaders and directors. Asking these questions will help: Are you getting the perspectives of your independent directors? Especially if the Chairperson of the Board of Directors is also the CEO (a common occurrence in Malta), it’s crucial to make sure that independent directors feel comfortable offering alternative points of view. Are directors relying on the chairman to make decisions? Are senior executives relying on the chief executive to make decisions, plan the path forward, and communicate with stakeholders? The entire team should be involved in creating solutions and communicating what is happening. At such a critical time it is essential that everyone is doing his or her part.
- Avoiding confrontation at all costs: There is a tendency of a group’s majority, once it has reached a preliminary decision or agreed on an initial plan, to pressure dissenters to fall into line with the consensus view in order to have unified action. As a result, the group doesn’t take more time to explore potentially better options. To avoid such an occurrence, business leaders should ask these types of questions:
- Has everyone received the full set of information and been given a chance to form his or her own opinion before hearing others?
- Does everyone fully understand and appreciate the problems and have an opportunity to ask questions before they are presented with any proposed solution?
- Have directors, been given access to top management and senior executives whose knowledge is essential in addressing the crisis?
- Are all experts sharing their expertise? Every expert will see the same problem through his or her own lens and be likely to have a somewhat different recommendation.
- Is the senior management team and the board of directors getting all those different perspectives?
- Does the senior management team or board of directors simply accept the first plausible solution, or does it continue to search for alternative, potentially superior solutions?
While having the management team and board of directors answering these kind of questions may seem as slowing down the response in a crisis, it is the management teams that ask the tough questions now that are less likely to waste time and money implementing an outdated approach and more likely to do the best-possible job of preparing the business for whatever future ultimately emerges.
Things get more complicated when small businesses do not really have a board of directors to turn onto and would very much rely on the decisions formulated in the mind of the main or sole leader and owner. Though these are truly difficult times, I still see business leaders who want to do more of the same and have no external advisor to help them challenge their assumptions and gain a holistic view much wider than the daily operations of their company. An external business adviser would work across a very wide array of companies, industries, and countries and can thus bring his or her experience to help challenge and formulate the thinking more expansively and achieve potential through truly customised solutions.