Leadership

How to weather a potential downturn - and compassion’s role: Kearney 

Kearney's Stefan Marcu shares how big shifts like the pandemic could impact teams and economies - and what leaders can do to prepare.

Kearney's Stefan Marcu shares how big shifts like the pandemic could impact teams and economies - and what leaders can do to prepare. Image: Kearney

Linda Lacina
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • Subscribe to Meet The Leader on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
  • Meet The Leader is the podcast from the World Economic Forum that features the world’s top changemakers, showcasing the habits and traits effective leaders can’t work without.
  • In the face of a potential global recession, how can you lead the best team in the best conditions possible?
  • Kearney’s Stefan Marcu shares the questions leaders should ask themselves about everything from hiring to spending to the contingency plans they should be making.
  • He also shares how the pandemic shaped him as a leader and how compassion can help leaders better prepare their teams for the changes ahead.

The world is roiling from a host of challenges, from the pandemic and economic disruption to the conflict in the Urkraine with many experts predicting a global recession.

At May's Annual Meeting, Meet The Leader talked to Stefan Marcu, a Senior Partner and Managing Director at consultancy Kearney, based in Warsaw. He explained how recent global challenges have shaped him as a leader and how leaders can better guide their teams.

Get planning. Contingency planning will be key, said Marcu. Many organisations have likely not had time to plan for a potential recession, especially those in Eastern Europe who have moved from coping with the pandemic to coping with the Ukraine invasion. Still, leaders should look carefully at everything from how what they plan to spend to how they hire.

"Make sure you have the right talent on board," he advises, explaining that leader might not be able to replace workers in the way they'd like as a downturn progresses.

Get communicating. Leaders should prepare their teams for potential changes ahead. He suggests sharing what scenarios could play out, how your organization might react or the processes it might put into place.

"Make sure that your teams are aware and prepared," said Marcu. "This is what we're going to do, this is where we're going to go. All those things need to be put in place."

Tap your compassion. The pandemic helped change how Marcu leads, driving a deeper understanding for him of words such as 'teamwork' or 'well-being.' Marcu stresses that your staff is your most important asset and as more change is ahead, it will be all the more important to consider how disruptions are impacting them so you can meet their shifting needs.

"Be open. Be generous with your time. Just make sure that they feel heard," he told Meet The Leader. "You don't always need to solve problems. Sometimes it's enough that you're there."

Read the transcript below.

TRANSCRIPT - Stefan Marcu on 'weathering a global recession - and compassion's role'

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: In this complex moment, what’s standing out for you the most?

Stefan Marcu: People, specifically in my part of the world in central Eastern Europe, the resilience of the Ukrainians, the resilience of other people, the amazing jump to help them. I'm currently living in Poland and what is interesting is that Poland took overnight about 4 million Ukrainians on top of the 1.5 million that they had before. So you can imagine a country that has a population of about 38 million taking overnight another four, basically increasing the population by 10%, and making sure that everybody's taken care of.

I think that's something that basically strikes you as extraordinary, and making sure that every child, every mother, and everybody who managed to get out of the country is taken care of, in a meaningful way, while supporting the Ukrainians back home. I think that is probably something that actually, at the end of the day, makes a huge impression on you everyday.

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Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Experts warn there's a prospect of a global recession. What should leaders be doing to prepare?

Stefan Marcu: I think it's about contingency planning quite a bit. My part of the world moved from contingency planning for pandemic to contingency planning for war. I don't think any of us had the chance to do contingency planning for a recession and what that means to their own operations as well as their clients'.

It makes sense to look at your organization right now and look at your clients and where the market might go and see if there is something that you can either plan for right now or put some reserves aside so you can actually weather a potential storm. I think it's going to happen probably in a couple of months and maybe a little but too late for some people.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: What would those contingency plans consist of?

Stefan Marcu: If you imagine a recession, you can imagine that demand might drop. You can imagine that financing is going to be much more expensive than it is right now. Those contingencies are there. Be careful about how much you're spending right now, how much employment you're adding right now. You might make sure that you have all your financing sources sorted out for the right price. You might make sure that you have the right talent on board because you might not be able to replace the best talent. It's going to be very expensive.

Make sure that your teams are aware and prepared for it as well. Make sure to take care to communicate to them that it might happen: this is what we're going to do, this is where we're going to go. So all those things need to be put in place. You need to start at least getting your target audience and your organization ready for the situation. These are areas you could look at.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: How would a potential recession impact developing countries?

Stefan Marcu: This is going to impact even more value chains, which are stretched right now. We're currently in almost the third year of global logistical issues, global shortages of multiple components. I think this is just going to make this effect even bigger. So it's going to have a multiplier effect on all these problems. And this is going to hit not only developing economies, but it's going to hit all economies. In developing economies, you have generally a more vulnerable population which is going to feel these effects more strongly. Jobs are going to disappear. And we might see these kind of effects also on the social level.

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Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: How would a potential recession impact humanitarian efforts that are helping the people of Ukraine?

Stefan Marcu: This is becoming a bit of a theoretical exercise. I think the humanitarian aspect of what is currently happening in Central and Eastern Europe has of course an economic component, but on the other hand, it has also a social and a human component.

The human component is the most important one. Yes, recession might make it harder for help to be given to large amounts of population. But if you're looking at the last three months of this situation, of this war of Russia and Ukraine, and at least what people in Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania did, most of the support in terms of humanitarian relief, was given by individuals -- by individual families, by individual people trying to do good.

I don't expect that this is going to stop just because there is a recession. But it might make it a bit more difficult than in the past. For sure, there are going to be fewer resources...but I believe that at least Eastern Europeans tend to be very, very resilient in times of crisis. We tend to become stronger in times of crisis.

Also, right now we have a war, but if you're looking at the last 20-something years of history going out of communism, going through a war in Kosovo and then in Serbia, going through different economic crises, and now, in this situation, we seem to be going from one crisis to the other. But we also learned how to manage these things to a certain extent.

"I believe in kindness. I believe in the human spirit."

Stephan Marcu, Senior Partner and Managing Director, Kearney

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Do you think we'll be better prepared to handle the disruption ahead mentally and emotionally because of the past two to three years?

Stefan Marcu: Some of us, yes. It's not easy on most. Are you going to be a little bit more used to managing crisis situations? Absolutely. Are we going to be stronger? Probably yes, but I think a lot of people are still going to be deeply impacted and affected over the next couple of years.

It's very difficult to tell how this is going to look like. I'll give you an example. There are kids coming out of the war zone and the impact on their emotions is very, very strong and it might be there with them for the next decades. Is this going to make them stronger? Probably.

But I think it's also going to affect them in ways that cannot foresee right now. This is not a situation which is special for Eastern Europe. I think we have the situation everywhere. We had it in Syria. We had it in Lebanon, we had it in Libya in different places around the world where you have conflict. i can see the effect this is having on friends, colleagues employees and basically the entire society.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: What keeps you up at night these days? In such a complex moment, what stands out for you?

Stefan Marcu: What is important for me is to be able to take care of the people around me. Loyalty is an important, important component of my life. So what keeps me up at night are: things related to the security of my colleagues that are still in Ukraine, for example; the mental health of colleagues that are in Poland; How the recession is going to impact our business and to what extent I'm going to be able to keep everybody in a good economic shape.

And looking at the impact of 24/7 news cycle on the war in Ukraine on my daughter, who is six and is asking "What's happening?" -- These are the things that are keeping me, these days, up at night.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: What helps you navigate this?

Stefan Marcu: Again, the same people: colleagues, friends, close relationships. The fact that I can take my daughter and keep her in my arms.

"Be open. Be generous with your time."

Stephan Marcu, Senior Partner and Managing Director, Kearney

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: This might be the same answer, but what gives you hope?

Stefan Marcu: Might be the same as I think, I believe in kindness, I believe in the human spirit.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: The role of businesses has been changing. What's the most striking difference now compared to five or 10 years ago on the expectation on business in society?

Stefan Marcu: Function is one - a global community more than the direction we're going right now, which is basically a fragmented world of small populations and groups of interests. I think it's difficult to fix any of the big world's problems without being one world team. And I've said I'm representing Eastern Europe but Eastern Europe is not a country. Eastern Europe is a very diverse place with different cultures, different languages. Trying to create a team of that is complicated and trying to create a global team is even more complicated. So I think that's what I would like to see one day. And I think this is also the biggest challenge for all of us.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: How can leaders sort of meet that expectation - to build and convene both in their company and with others outside their company?

Stefan Marcu: I think communication is important -- reaching out. Also offering a hand when people reach out to you. Be open, be generous with your time. I think these are probably the things that I'm doing normally. This is what I'm expecting for people and what I hope I'm giving back.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: The pandemic, and many of the challenges in the past few years, has changed how many leaders lead. How has either the pandemic or even the recent Ukraine crisis shaped you as a leader or heightened certain capabilities for you?

Stefan Marcu: I have become much more -- even more -- caring than I was in the past. I did finally realize that the value of some of those words like 'team' or 'well-being'. Now I actually have a deep understanding that your people are the most important asset. That the best thing you can do is take care of them and not let them down and make sure that you offer them everything they need so they can function confidently and without any problems, delivering that joy at work of trying to make the environment conducive for that at work.

This is how it transformed me. I'm thinking every day: Where is my team? How are they feeling? Are they okay? Is there anything I can do for them? Can I offer more time? Can I offer other assets to enable them to function to the level they would like to?

Or just sometimes just listen to them. Just make sure that they feel heard. You don't always need to solve problems. Sometimes just it's enough that you're there. I have internalized those elements. I think this is basically how it changed me. It became less of a 'we need to deliver the result'. It became more of a 'we need to be the best team in the best conditions possible.' And I'm sure that if we make all the right steps for us, it's also going to be good economically.

"We need to be the best team in the best conditions possible."

Stephan Marcu, Senior Partner and Managing Director, Kearney

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: How do you deliver joy at work?

Stefan Marcu: I was actually having a discussion with another colleague about this topic. And how do you actually create an environment that's conducive for joy at work. You need to make it possible for people to be themselves and to do what they like to do at work. And the only way to do that is also to listen to them.

Sometimes you need to coach some people. Sometimes you just need to listen to what they would like to do and allow them to do that or put them in a position to do that. And sometimes just be sensitive to their needs, for them to be who they need to be. Who they are at home should be who they are at work as well -- to not have multiple personalities to be able to function.

If you get some of these things right, I think for a lot of people it's probably going to be good when they wake up in the morning. [People could say to themselves] I'm going to go to that work because I like being there with those people. I feel good with myself in my skin with those people around me and I'm doing what I want to do.

Listen to them, engage with them. Offer your time. Be generous with your time, the resources you have at your disposal. Make sure that everybody's heard. Communicate as frequently as possible. Be close to them.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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