by Paul Izenstark
This year has been anything but business-as-usual—far from it. But 2020 has also proven the truth of a timeless maxim: Change is the only constant in life. As an industry, we have never been immune to change and a wide variety of uncontrollable factors will always impact our decisions, our people, and our business.
As just one example, many of us entered the new year with our 2020 calendars filled with in-person meetings, conferences, and industry events, most of which will never occur. While unfortunate, exchanging ideas and sharing observations remains critically important. Although we have been unable to meet with leaders in-person, we continue to provide advice and exchange observations and insights.
What are the critical questions that leaders are working through as they face unprecedented pressure? How have they changed now that they are also facing an unprecedented distraction? As many of you know from firsthand experience, this is not the first storm that senior managers have been forced to weather, nor will it be the last. Those who found themselves in leadership positions during the financial crisis in 2008, for example, know that answering tough questions can help them prepare for whatever comes next, even if impossible to anticipate fully. Here are a few of the tough questions we have been discussing with our clients.
Is Now the Time to Be Making Critical Management Decisions?
Those who have successfully led organizations through past crises would answer with an unequivocal yes, asserting that times like these require a closer and even more intentional evaluation of the overall management team’s structure, performance, and efficacy.
Simply put, challenging times make it more imperative to thoughtfully assess how well a team is equipped to handle critical moments. It’s an essential time to determine how various teams are performing, identify the strongest links, and assess whether any individuals might be standing in the way of eventual success. Frankly, the ‘B-minus performer’ isn’t up to the challenges that present themselves in disruptive times.
An article from McKinsey underscores this point. Speaking about the then-current financial crisis, it stresses that “mopping up the collateral damage in the executive suite is now a mission-critical task for many CEOs and is likely to remain one even when business conditions begin to recover.” It goes on to discuss the importance of overcoming fear, denial and any learning blocks that might inhibit taking new, perhaps unconventional, approaches.
Is It Time to Focus Even More on the Team’s Core Leadership Competencies?
Building on the above point, another takeaway is that specific leadership qualities become even more essential when organizations experience significant pressures and especially now with significant disruption.
Looking again at literature related to the 2008 financial upheaval, consider these words from a Harvard Business Review article: “One cannot manage change. One can only be ahead of it. In a period of upheavals, such as the one we are living in, change is the norm. To be sure, it is painful and risky, and above all, it requires a great deal of hard work.”
That ‘painful and risky’ work of leadership matters more than right now. How well is your senior leadership team communicating to their reports in a way that dispels with clearheaded thinking vs. any fog of uncertainty or virtual distraction? Are the executives tasked with making hard decisions related to operations as strong as they need to be? Is your management team looking beyond the short-term disruption to position you for future growth? These and similar questions can help you assess whether the senior leaders at your organization, as well as those in other key positions, have the core leadership competencies for the urgencies of the moment.
Is It Time to Rethink Your Human Capital Strategies?
The short answer is yes. Prior to the global disruption that turned this conversation into a post, we were already seeing more leaders with diverse experiences questioning their current career trajectories and seeking counsel on other opportunities.
In times of crisis, this can become more pronounced as these same individuals think even harder about their present situation and future goals. For example, those currently outside the industry might become more intrigued by the thought of working in a fundamentally noble profession that’s responsible for feeding the world.
Due to the above realities, a successful human capital strategy will put an even greater emphasis on finding the right fit between organization and talent. Leaders who thrive not only have the necessary talent and competencies but also align well with a company’s unique challenges and opportunities. A recent Harvard Business Review article titled A Better Way to Develop and Retain Top Talent asserts that “we are in the middle of a work revolution” that is forcing companies to rethink their approach.
As you consider your human capital strategy, how are the pressures and now the global distractions impacting the career choices of your best people? There is a direct link between the context of a senior leadership role and the set of candidate capabilities, experiences, and management style which are required to be effective in that position with that client. In our searches for senior leaders at Kincannon & Reed, the context typically includes strategy, culture, organizational complexity, external business environment, and stakeholder expectations.
The current situation has only made more apparent the need to intensify focus, revisit strategies, and make hard decisions. As they have in the past, whether through technology or in-person meetings, our partners are ready to help, either by continuing this conversation or assisting with specific talent acquisition needs.