The last few months have been momentous, much of what we regarded as ‘normal’ evaporated practically overnight. And every organisation, every business has had to review its strategy.
It is hardly a surprise that in a recent survey, 27% of Directors said their strategy was now based mostly on instinct, with 13% saying it was mostly based on data, and 60% choosing a mix of the two. I suspect those figures aren’t entirely accurate; I suspect that a greater number of leaders are currently operating on instinct but are reluctant to acknowledge it, fearing this would signal weakness and poor leadership. I don’t think it is. I think that one of the few good things to emerge as a result of this pandemic is a reframing of what good leadership looks like and what a good business should be.
Leading the way
Firstly, instinct is not necessarily a bad thing. Instinct comes with experience; it is the ability to spot patterns swiftly and make decisions based on those patterns. Good leaders know how to balance instinct with evidence. Good leaders also know when to acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers. How can anyone right now? We are living through a global pandemic – none of us have experienced something like this.
We don’t expect our bosses to come to us with cast iron guarantees about the future. In this respect, we are all in it together: venturing into the unknown, not knowing what new factor outside of your control will derail your plans, forcing another change in strategy. I would argue strongly that is impossible to do on your own. Good leaders will demonstrate their strength by acknowledging they need help and collaborate with people from inside and outside their organisation to get to the right place.
And what is the right place? I don’t think it can, nor should, be where we were before. We must use the experience of the lockdown to rethink what a successful business looks like.
In measuring success, we need to look at more than the bottom line. We have been talking about business playing a real part in the delivery of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and some have stepped up to the challenge. However, the majority haven’t. We could, and I would argue we should, use this moment to reset priorities, to put purpose at the heart of business.
Profit and purpose
The businesses which will not just survive, but thrive, over the coming months and years will be those with leaders that embrace the notion that profit without purpose is pointless – and equally, purpose without profit is unsustainable. Purpose-driven companies elicit passion and commitment from their people, their customers and consumers – a combination which is much sought after for good reason: purpose-drive companies outperform ones which don’t have a purpose.
Finding your purpose is not a solo activity; good leaders are not expected to have all the answers. They do need to ask the right questions of the right people and be committed to make the change.
Whether or not you are attracted to the concept of purpose (given the likely direction of the economy in the short to medium term businesses really ought to be), I don’t think engagement in the other pressing issue of the moment is optional.
Taking a stand against racial injustice
Events in the US have finally forced a serious conversation about race and racism in the US and the UK, and how organisations can contribute to tackling the issue. Expectations from colleagues, consumers, political stakeholders and even investors are high. They are all looking to organisations to take a stand in this space. My advice is clear to those businesses who have sought it: take action, doing nothing is not an option. But, and it is an important but, confining your response to signing a pledge or doing something on social is not enough. Anyone can use a hashtag or black out a logo, what is needed is serious consideration of what you can do to tackle racism in all forms (systemic, overt, insidious) within your organisation, as well as how be actively anti-racist externally. Knowing what to do, and how and when to do it is difficult, but good leaders will recognise where they need help and bring in advisers to support them to develop and deliver a robust plan. We have been working a range of organisations over the last few weeks to help shape their thinking, design programmes and develop communication plans. I am hopeful that with strong and effective leadership, these will yield effective results.
I would really like to think that a year hence (vaccine permitting) we are all back in the office, sitting together in meeting rooms and conference centres, looking back on 52 weeks when we finally started to take purpose and race seriously, changing the heart of British business. It is ambitious I know, but as Comrade Lenin said decades can take place in weeks.