COVID-19: How leaders can create a new and better normal 

A woman runs past a mural of a rainbow in Brockley, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), London, Britain, May 4, 2020. REUTERS/Adam Oliver - RC2UHG95RUJV
Citizens have put community ahead of self in response to crises through history.
Image: REUTERS/Adam Oliver
  • The shift from respond to recover requires us to move from an internal, functional view to a view focused on stakeholders and outcomes.
  • Defining the destination first and working backwards will help leaders create more aggressive and creative plans.
  • The pandemic offers opportunities to act to build trust, or lose it.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations around the globe have demonstrated remarkable agility, changing business models literally overnight: setting up remote-work arrangements; offshoring entire business processes to less-affected geographies; initiating multi-company cooperation to redeploy furloughed employees across sectors. In each situation, the urgency for results prevailed over traditional bureaucratic responses.

The ability to embed rapid and nimble decision-making into company cultures will be equally important through crisis recovery and into the next normal. But managing in this new and unfamiliar environment demands more from leaders.

The substantial shifts in society, its institutions and individuals during the crisis have introduced major uncertainties into our familiar structures. Assumptions about what is true and stable – for example, the freedom to move through society without restrictions – have been upended. These shifts have resulted in major changes and new uncertainties about the underpinnings of business and society that resilient leaders must address.

Look from the inside out

A recovery of the scale and scope ahead of us hasn’t been attempted in our lifetimes. It is complicated by having to simultaneously navigate rapidly changing governmental mandates, fragile supply networks, anxious team members and customers concerned about their health security.

Given the market uncertainties, companies relying on conventional wisdom may discover that the world they knew and want to recreate is no longer there. And the way in which leaders created plans and playbooks in the past may no longer be relevant, especially if they were focused internally. A functional focus was entirely appropriate in the immediacy of the respond phase. However, the shift from respond to recover requires a mindset pivot from an internal, functional view to a stakeholder-focused, outcomes-based orientation.

As we move into the recover phase, resilient leaders will seize the opportunity to grow and change. Having built and integrated new attitudes, beliefs, agility and structures into their organizations’ DNA, they’ll not just recover lost ground, but catapult forward, quickly.

Define the destination

Resilient leaders start by anticipating what success looks like at the end of the recover phase – how their business will thrive for the long term – then guide their teams to execute an outcome-based set of sprints to get there with agility. Defining the destination first and working backwards will help leaders create more aggressive and creative plans. Having the leadership team envision a successful end-state is emotionally enabling, freeing it from the constraints of the present. It also discourages incremental thinking, which hampers creativity.

Agile delivery principles are essential on the recovery journey. Not only might the destination shift as new issues emerge, but the “unknown unknowns” can cause unexpected detours on the journey. Running the recovery programme in short (i.e. six-week) sprints enables leadership and others managing the recovery to programmatically monitor and make mid-course corrections.

leadership coronavirus
Four elements of resilient leadership

Trust as a catalyst

During the recover phase, resilient leaders need to inspire their teams to navigate through uncertainty. But great leadership requires even greater followership – and that is nurtured by trust.

Although some may think of trust as an abstract, ethereal concept, it is in fact quite tangible and essential to reaffirming relationships with stakeholders throughout the recovery. Research demonstrates that trust yields real results in terms of economic growth and shareholder value, increased innovation, greater community stability and better health outcomes. Trust is nurtured and built among stakeholders in four different dimensions: physical, emotional, financial and digital. The pandemic has heightened stakeholder sensitivity across these four dimensions, which offers greater opportunities to act to build trust, or lose it.

Many leaders have created a significant reserve of trust by deftly navigating through the early frenzied unpredictable stages of the crisis. Moving forward, greater levels of trust can be earned from employees when leadership thoughtfully considers how to re-engage the workforce in the office (such as reconfiguring the space to honour social distancing), or when leaders go to lengths to preserve as many jobs as possible rather than just preserving profits. Likewise, trust is built among customers through actions such as adding extra security measures to protect their data from cyber threats.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Social impact investor Andy Crouch recently said: “In order to find our way to the new playbook for the mission and people that have been entrusted to us, we will need to act at every moment in ways that build on, and build up, trust.” Indeed, invested wisely and prudently, trust will grow through repeated affirming experiences. Invested poorly, it will dissipate rapidly.

Aim higher

Sociologists have observed many crises throughout history requiring massive sacrifices from a citizenry that responded by putting community ahead of self. Leaders led, and people trusted them. As a new social contract was created, people overcame challenges once thought insurmountable – and used each crisis to elevate themselves and their nation.

This same potential exists today. Returning to a world that existed before COVID-19 would mark failure. We all should expect more. We have a chance to use what we’ve learned the past months to usher in a new and better normal. The key to doing so – to exercising resilient leadership – is the ability to energize our teams by looking outward, imagining a successful future and embracing trust to get us there.

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