• The world is changing rapidly and unpredictably, and this is complicating decision-making for business leaders.
  • From a meeting of the World Economic Forum's New Champions, we have distilled some insights from business leaders about how to move forward.

The world as we knew it has ceased to exist. Companies and individuals have been forced into rapid transitions almost overnight, causing unprecedented levels of human disconnection, stress, unpreparedness – and unpredictability.

This has enormous implications for company executives and other leaders in human resources. Knowing what to do, how to do it and when to do it is not easy in these times. How can leaders foster the innovation, resilience and serendipity ('smart luck') that is crucial for surviving and thriving?

Based on a recent leadership session with members of the World Economic Forum’s New Champions community – a community of successful leaders who are 'in the trenches' running global businesses – we have distilled some insights on how some of them have navigated the COVID-19 transition with their employees, fostering a trust relationship that enables strength and resilience.

1. Accept that no-one has all the answers – and be transparent about it: By articulating a strong sense of direction, mixed with communicating that the exact plan will most likely evolve or change, leaders can build trust and keep an open mind to new and innovative solutions. Some of our New Champions’ CEOs are especially vocal about this, transforming this transparency exercise into the creation of a strong bond with their staff.

2. Be available to others: In a time in which many employees feel disconnected from each other and their company, being able to actively listen to and engage with employees – and to provide the necessary psychological safety – becomes paramount. One member of the CEO New Champions community, for example, opens her doors on Tuesdays, and everyone in the company, independent of their position, can walk in and discuss their current issue. It helps tremendously during the crisis to understand specific constraints and solve them quickly.

3. Look at crisis and mistakes differently: Particular practices, such as post-mortems and project funerals, help turn potential 'failure' into learning opportunities, and allow us to reframe capabilities based on the new and emerging challenges.

4. Integrate playfulness: There is vast research in the domains of psychology, sociology and anthropology that corroborates the fact that playfulness is highly beneficial in stress management, creativity and learning. At a time when it’s hard for people to get out of bed, leaders need to be creative in engaging their employees in different ways. This can include solutions that may initially seem far-fetched, such as those developed by Green Delta Insurance Company; the group has created songs in which everyone has a piece of music to sing. The point is to ensure the mental wellbeing of employees by developing 'relaxation spaces' for people who are in fight-or-flight mode – in which we often don't rise to the level of our expectations but fall to the level of our training.

5. See opportunity in adversity: Many initiatives that under normal circumstances would have required years to come to fruition – including those related to virtual activities – have been accelerated. Using this push as an opportunity to integrate those initiatives can bear positive long-term effects and provide an opportunity to develop a more agile and networked organization – as long as the changes are in line with the organization’s core values and collective goals.

6. Iterate fast: This is about questioning assumptions and rapid iteration. It can include low-probability options in new products that might unexpectedly be picked up by people (one example is the individual lending schemes developed by Nigeria’s Diamond Bank).

Throughout history, civilization has depended on people's ability to make the best out of the unknown. The best leaders realize that in a fast-changing world, it is an illusion to be in full control – rather, they cultivate diversity, human connection, and a serendipity mindset. At that point, cultivating serendipity becomes an active approach to leading during uncertainty, and instead of being merely a threat, the unexpected can help us create innovation, resilience, and 'smart luck' – especially in times of crisis.

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