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The Four Key Competencies That Are Vital to Leading Change in Uncertain Times

In this blog, Helen Rodgers, programme lead for our Business and Management MSc, explores four key competencies leaders should look to adopt during times of crisis and change – and why these are more important now than ever before.  

"2020 has been the ultimate test of leadership and management for businesses across the world. From China to Italy, Australia to India, the UK to the US, there are very few organisations who haven’t been impacted by the very sudden and dramatic upheaval that has been created by the Covid-19 crisis.  

The way business leaders have reacted to this unforeseen situation and adopted effective change management strategies will be remembered for decades to come. From exemplary examples of innovation, to leaders who have had to navigate the stormy seas of crisis management as their reaction to the situation came under scrutiny, never before has there been a bigger magnifying glass on organisations’ abilities to manage change effectively, sustainably and responsibly. 

From Planned to Emergent Change 

As there was very little time to prepare for such a hugely complex situation, many leaders have had to cast linear, planned change management tactics aside - the type they would normally bring into play when asking employees to accept and adapt to a new technology or organisational culture. Instead, the focus has been on agile and emergent approaches to change management. Both approaches are focused on the assumption that change is a “continuous, open-ended and unpredictable process of aligning and realigning an organisation to its changing environment” (Burnes, 2009).   

During the pandemic, certain leadership qualities, such as decisiveness, authority and short-term focus, have needed to give way to humility, adaptability, vision and constant engagement; four competencies that IMD’s Center for Digital Business Transformation refer to as the HAVE mindset. As initial restrictions begin to lift, there’s never been a better time to examine and learn from leaders who have changed course and adopted these competencies to prioritise their employees’ and customers’ needs and maintain business continuity in unprecedented times.  

Showing Humility  

As a recent report from Deloitte states, "leading and inspiring employees amidst a global pandemic is only possible with compassion for workforces and communities. The need of the hour is for leadership to focus inside and then outside.” In times of rapid change, leaders who have been open and honest in their conviction that they don’t have all the answers but will do their very best to support their employees have been praised across the world. Such leaders are skilled at being transparent about current realities (including what they don’t know), while also painting a compelling picture of the future to inspire their employees and customers.  

In the UK, retail chain Timpson are one such business who have been recognised for their empathetic and genuine response to the crisis. Their 5,500 employees, who provide shoe repair, dry cleaning and key-cutting services, were kept on full pay while shops remained closed. At the start of the crisis, CEO James Timpson tweeted part of a memo he issued to staff, saying:  

Tweet from James Timpson

As The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper comments, this example provides a powerful showcase that “if you operate ethically, you look to share value throughout the supply chain, and if no stakeholder gains disproportionately at the expense of another, then you have a sustainable business.” 

As an employer, Timpson have shown they will go the extra mile for their staff in order to secure their loyalty – something that will galvanise their commitment to give more than a mile back. 

Embracing Adaptability 

Covid-19 has accelerated many organisations into a new way of working. For some, this has meant swiftly adopting working from home, with many companies putting agile working principles into place. Solid leadership in this area has been dominated by rolling out existing business continuity plans that set up explicit expectations, with teams already equipped with the knowledge they needed to work from home effectively and safely.  

But according to a survey by Mercer, only 22% of organisations were ready for mass remote working prior to Covid-19. Many of the remaining 78% of businesses have relied on their leadership teams to swiftly establish cross-functional teams to drive collaboration, put policies and procedures in to place to manage their workforce remotely and work to effectively communicate the change to relevant stakeholders.  

For other businesses, effective leadership has taken the form of having the confidence to swiftly revise entire business plans in order to find new ways to serve customers. Accepting that change is the only constant has been key to the survival of many small businesses. For Irish firm Flying Elephant Productions, a builder of event stages and props, this meant turning the wood they would have previously used for stages into home desks fit for remote working. In just the space of one month, they’d sold more than 2,000 desks, with a steady stream of orders continuing to come in.  Co-owner Michael Keelan has now diversified their product range to include sanitiser stations and garden furniture. 

A Willingness to Constantly Engage 

For many businesses, their ability to weather the storm has relied on the development of a clear and consistent communications strategy. Good strategies not only engage external stakeholders, but also provided a clear and focused approach to connecting with the workforce. 

The importance of strong internal communications within any change management strategy has been thrust into the spotlight. For leaders who have had to take the difficult decision to furlough staff, it has been key that they have taken time to explain the situation to their employees and tell them about the business’ intentions before they tell the rest of the world. And for others, sharing updates about any further changes or ongoing business responses has helped to ensure their employees have felt involved, valued and engaged.  

Effective customer communication has also been key to ensuring that businesses are in a better position once lockdown is lifted. Many of the UK’s supermarket giants have been especially effective at communicating changes with their customers as their organisations have been hit with unprecedented demand as well as the need to introduce new social distancing measures in store. Clear, concise messaging from supermarket CEOs have arrived in their customers’ inboxes every week - ensuring that they maintain their support during a challenging period.

Harnessing A Long-Term Vision 

It’s undoubtable that, amid the pandemic, many leaders’ time has been filled with the day-to-day management of the unfolding crisis. For some, this has meant responding to new trends - such as the unprecedented rise in online shopping, digital media consumption and remote working. These trends have unfolded in a matter of days or weeks, when, in a normal environment, they would take a lot longer to evolve.  How leaders have reacted to these changes while continuing to express and commit to their values over this time will reverberate for years to come – something that many have been extremely mindful of.   

Many are also aware that with a short-term shock, also comes a longer-term change. The business environment they will meet once the pandemic comes to an end – which could be over 12 months away – will be different to where it was before the start of the crisis. It is key that they begin to prepare for this now.   

Retailer Next – who believe they could weather a loss of more than £1bn in 2020, have taken steps to ensure that their long-term goals are not lost amid their short-term reactions to the pandemic. For chief executive Simon Wolfson, this has meant accelerating their longer-term business plan by focusing on leveraging investment in warehousing, call centres, distribution assets, marketing and systems. “This will determine our longer-term destiny. That requires a culture that embraces change and is not afraid to take risks – no mean feat in a crisis”, he says. 

Leadership for Responsible Change 

As a signatory of the UN sponsored Principles of Responsible Management Education, at Newcastle Business School we are committed to helping business leaders understand the impact that organisational decision making has, especially during such uncertain times. For example, over the course of our new part-time, distance learning Business and Management Masters, students have the chance to critically explore how to manage and lead positive and responsible change during a dedicated module on Leadership for Responsible Change. It is our mission to help our students gain the skills, knowledge and confidence needed to become leaders who can make a difference within their organisation, and the wider world."

Helen is the academic lead on our Business and Management MSc distance learning course. Discover more the course, and how it could help you to become the leader tomorrow needs, here. 


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