“Many have compared the COVID crisis to armed conflict … Once this war against an invisible enemy is over, our ambitions should be bolder – nothing less than to make a fit planet for our grandchildren to live on” – Mark Carney, Former Governor, Bank of England
After a few months of research, analysis and writing during lockdown, I am pleased to be able to finally share insights from one of the largest single studies of strategic responses of Guernsey firms to the COVID-19 pandemic (“crisis”) conducted to date.
You can access the full report here, or below I have pasted in the key sections.
Between April and June, I surveyed 439 senior leaders across Guernsey, UK, EU, US, APAC using a 15 question open-ended online survey (see below):
Given the nature and scale of the pandemic, this really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for organisational behaviouralists to understand what is going on in terms of how firms, leaders, employees and other stakeholders are responding over time.
Specifically, for leaders and firm the findings hopefully help with the following:
New Insight: Leaders and teams can better understand the strategic responses of large and small firms across many different sectors to the crisis, and the complex consequences, behaviour, and implications it has had on firms, people and customers
Priorities: Leaders and teams can learn about the priority focus areas and big opportunities for leaders to better structure and get to work to rebuild and reignite performance
Behaviours: Leaders and teams can learn the new leadership styles, cultural behaviours, mindsets, and ways of working needed to turn crisis into opportunity
We identified 6 areas of insight for leaders and firms:
Evolution AND Revolution
- 5-10 years of change in 5 weeks for many sectors
- Rapid acceleration of many pre-existing structural trends (e.g. cloud, flexible work, e-commerce, up-skilling) and new behaviours likely to endure
- For many change will likely be evolutionary but for others it will be revolutionary with increasing pace of change e.g. retail.
- Leaders must continuously identify, evaluate and scenario plan for the right market signals, trends and new consumer behaviours
- Firms who don’t do this, get it wrong or go too slow risk disruption, market share loss or other business risks
OPPORTUNITY: The top 5 key trends impacting your firm today will provide the investment roadmap for your next 24 months
2. Trust As A Differentiator
- There are complex dynamics at play and business and moral imperatives for leaders to assess the impact of the crisis on the human psyche which has affected people in many different ways
- The “psychological contract” between employer/employee has also shifted for many, and firms must now not assume ‘old’ practices were the right ones.
- Traditional work assumptions have been challenged, as as well complex issues around safety, mental health, inclusivity, belonging, empathy, EQ, culture, power dynamics, and expectations on leadership styles
OPPORTUNITY: The firms who get these complex dynamics right will become the new employers/brands of choice 2021+
3. Digital Acceleration
- The crisis has shown that rapid change at speed and scale is possible using digital and cloud in the short-term.
- Rapidly advancing and converging technologies combined with increasing human capabilities, new business models and ways to organise and lead are needed.
- Digital laggards and firms with limited customer-centricity will get left behind due to external forces and competitive intensity
OPPORTUNITY: Put digital at the centre of your corporate strategy, align leaders on digital acumen so every CXO is a Chief Digital Officer for their function, upskill workers, and prioritise the top3 digitising opportunities beyond back-office operations into more advanced worker productivity tools (e.g. automation, AI, analytics), superior customer experiences, new products/services and ecosystem collaborations/ventures
4. New Skills, Mindsets and Ways of Working
- As a shift to ‘smarter working’ means different thing to different firms, it is important to define what it is, what it means for the firms and employees, and what are the expected behaviours, required, skills, mindsets, and ways of working.
- Continued experimentation is required to engage with workforce, test models, gain feedback, learn best practices, and repeat, but the risk is many firms will likely revert to old habits and practices which will jeopardise trust with their talent
- This process is critical as learnings will likely have firm-wide impacts to entire workforce and processes, practices, culture and strategies e.g. training, performance management, corporate values, recruitment, rewards, policies, agile methods
OPPORTUNITY: Whilst firms who prioritise and commit to this will adjust more quickly to the landscape, those who use intentional cultural design as the agent of change will build a stronger platform than peers for longer-term success
5. Resilience And Adaptability
- Whilst many firms are making cuts to ride out the storm or shutting down permanently, our research identified many entrepreneurial firms who adapted quickly with new business models AND in parallel also focused on financial restructuring (e.g. loans, capital raising) and enhancing productivity (e.g. software, up-skilling), better utilisation (e.g. re-deploying staff), or improving customer experiences (e.g. online ordering via Facebook Commerce).
OPPORTUNITY: The firms who get the right but very difficult balance of resilient best practices, innovation for growth with longer-term exploration, and agile/new ways of working will be well-positioned to outperform peers and last for the longer-term
6. Increasing Leadership Complexity
- Given the nature of the crisis, for many leaders it represented a call to action to adopt both crisis management AND people-focused behaviours such as empathy, self-awareness, openness, vulnerability, and EQ
- The best leaders will also now spend more time on longer-term growth and innovation planning and exploration
OPPORTUNITY: Self-awareness is critical for leaders to start addressing skills gaps. Those who do and forge more trusting, purposeful, inclusive, authentic, and empathetic workplaces will retain (and be able to hire) the best talent and rebound faster then competitors
The survey results showed that the crisis has impacted organisations in many different ways over time. Some have had headwinds and tailwinds, but many have been caught in the middle.
The challenge now will be for leaders to be ‘open’ to understanding ‘what is going on’ inside and outside the firm, evaluating the degree to which each is relevant and to what extent, and then planning and executing an appropriate response.
Whereas 92% of international respondents were confident of being able to get through the crisis, only 64% of Guernsey respondents felt confident
96% of respondents indicated that their firms were able to respond to the crisis fast (52%) or extremely fast (44%);
22% of firms were unable to operate due to the crisis
Smarter working (34%), new technologies (33%) and new offerings (22%) were pre- planned changes that were accelerated due to the crisis
47% of respondents saw no changes to their work (i.e. work remotely) with the remaining undergoing disruption including job losses (15%). Adapting to virtual meetings (26%) and new ways of working (27%) were the major changes to jobs/skills
Employee safety and well-being (31%) were the major areas of people focus
Empathetic leadership (25%) with strong communications (23%) were the major leadership behaviours demonstrated
Desktop and mobile video-conferencing (VC) tools (46%) and cloud-based document and collaboration software (28%) were the most valuable technologies
Supportiveness (30%) and team spirit (20%) were the most valuable cultural attributes
New ways of working (18%) and new technologies (18%) have been the most important processes to improve
Innovation + Growth
Interestingly, only a small number of firms innovated with new channels or offerings (7%), with 12% engaging more with clients/partners (12%), and 14% indicating ‘no innovation’
What survey respondents said about the impact of the crisis on:
“Categorisation of business critical role and function for immediate, should and medium term. Anything out of above scope, amended, reduced or halted. Focus is on surviving the immediate challenge and preparation for reopening” – Hotel Owner
“The crisis has enabled more working from home flexibility, more focus on work life balance in times like this where stress and anxiety are a big part of many employees’ lives” – Director, Training Firm
“More areas of focus needed include managing mental health and wellness during and after the crisis; planning for the ‘new normal’, whatever that may be, and likely to be different in many ways to how we worked before COVID; and reintegration – thinking carefully about how we transition back to face to face after a sustained period of disruption, easily underestimated and ignored as a potential challenge”– Management consultant
“Empathy, transparency, and authenticity. For example, our MD did a WebEx from his daughter’s bedroom for all to see” – Sales Director
“Agility, flexibility, ability to make quick decisions” – CTO
“The crisis has sped up the utilisation of tools such as Microsoft Teams for meetings, e-signature software and other tech which will assist both with internal and external customers moving forward” – Investment Banker
GROWTH + INNOVATION:
We have built industry specific thought leadership and points of view that have historically fallen down the list behind client work; digitising our many face to face interventions, essentially helping us build out a whole new suite of assets that are now deployable in a virtual environment now and beyond COVID; more time for training and personal development – Learning and Development Manager
In summary, the crisis presents a significant opportunity for all leaders and firms to reset and lean-in to fully understanding what is going on in terms of how the crisis is impacting organisations in the short-term, what this might tell us about longer-term impacts, and where and how to focus efforts and investments across the operating model.