Long-Term Thinking In A Short-Term World: Tips For Leaders Responding To Uncertainty

By Jason Richmond, CEO and Chief Culture Officer at Ideal Outcomes, Inc.

“History doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes,” is a quote famously attributed to Mark Twain. Today, I feel that we seem to have lost even the rhyme. Instead, we are buffeted constantly by the unanticipated and unexpected.

Sure, as leaders, we have all seen exponential change many times over the years. The concept of change is not new. Interestingly, it has a scientific basis with Moore’s Law: that the number of transistors on a chip doubles about every two years. Moore's Law has often been used metaphorically to describe the rapid pace of change the world has experienced in the decades following World War II. From my perspective, advances in technology have been the key driver of change.

But what’s happening now is different. Covid-19 has turned the world upside down in ways we haven’t seen before. Consider the impact in just a few months on how we interact with one another, communicate, work, travel and even play and recreate. There isn’t a person or business left untouched one way or another, and there is no road map or rule book on what to do. Even more challenging is that information — ranging from scientific data, state and local regulations, government involvement, etc. —seems to shift daily, which makes planning a significant challenge.

When running a business, you might think it's tempting to throw up your hands and not try to plan anything. After all, simply reacting takes so much effort and energy. But leaders cannot sustain their organizations with such a strategy. You must guide your teams intentionally, rally the troops to think ahead, and regenerate enthusiasm and engagement while leading the organization forward.

Risk mitigation is not enough. Leaders must help their teams adapt and respond by taking advantage of what they can to make the organization and themselves successful. Here are some practical ways to rise to this challenge:

Analyze the most relevant issues.

Look at your current business. Where is the greatest potential for stability and growth? Is it in a certain region, product line, customer type and so on? This will help you target where the business is most likely to return first. Then, determine what key indicators of improvement you wish to track so you can start to lay a foundation for better business decisions.

The point is that you need to start planning now, rather than waiting for the virus to subside. Otherwise, your competition could get too much of a jump on you. Thoroughly discuss potential recovery strategies now.

Seek diverse perspectives.

Many leaders assume a “command and control” stance during times of crisis. But this isn’t your typical crisis; the level of uncertainty is extreme. Leading does not mean you have to solve all the problems yourself. Multiple viewpoints and ideas will generate better solutions while gaining buy-in at the same time.

So, seek ideas from all levels and types of employees. Put together a network of multiple teams that can brainstorm ideas and develop recommendations. Consider kicking off such sessions with a team-building activity. This can be as simple as going around the room asking everyone to complete the sentence, “One thing you might not know about me is …”

Once teams have developed their ideas, they can present their ideas to leadership. An interesting approach is to have two teams present opposing ideas. Leaders listen and do not interject until both sides are finished. When opposing viewpoints are presented in this way, I've found biases are reduced and a more complete picture is developed.

Develop the road map.

A detailed plan — including financial and people asset allocation, timelines and due dates — is essential. Part of the road map also needs to identify aspects of the business that have to change to accommodate the new plan. For example, what operational policies and processes need to be altered? How has your supply chain changed, and what are the implications of this challenge? What are the weakest links in the plan, and how can these be rectified?

Keep communication flowing.

Once a plan is developed, ongoing communication is critical. Ensure deep levels of transparency. Develop and publish a communications calendar so that employees know when regular updates will occur. Communicate in a variety of ways: virtual town halls, talking points and slide decks for managers, executive streamed videos, infographics showing progress visually, etc. Continue to use the diverse teams you established to help keep co-workers informed. They should focus on creating safe environments where people can voice concerns and fears.

Follow up regularly.

Following up is where most companies tend to drop the ball, even in good times. When times are challenging, following up is even more critical. Establish regular touch points with key players to make sure plans are on track. This process also creates agility. We know things are going to continue to change, and by meeting regularly, you are less likely to be caught by surprise or be thrown back into reaction mode. Updating regularly allows for quick revisions of ideas whenever the unexpected occurs.

Recognize and acknowledge successes.

This is an emotional time for everyone. Many people, including leaders, feel they are tapped out, and rightly so. Empathy is essential, as is acknowledging even the smallest of accomplishments. Such acknowledgment is not only motivating, but also reassuring. When people see progress is being made, hope is rejuvenated. They will bring new ideas forward and work hard to implement them. Leaders need to continually demonstrate the positive. This is not to suggest being overly optimistic, but rather being reassuring and supportive.

While today's uncertainty might feel like an insurmountable and unbearable roadblock, when leaders lead while enlisting the wisdom and passion of their followers, they can vanquish any challenge.