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Survive economic storm with pandemic’s leadership lessons

The pandemic's leadership lessons need to stick as a recession looms. Art Petty tells what to expect and how to weather the storm.

7 min read


Petty changing leadership

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Fresh as escapees of city life and happily ensconced in our new full-time surroundings on a lake in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, there’s a saying we frequently hear: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes — it will change.” Of course, it doesn’t always change for the better.

Newsflash: The economic weather is changing, and it feels like a storm is approaching. Possibly a big one. The question on my mind is “Will the leadership lessons of the past few years stick?”

I hope so. We’ve come too far and learned too much about leading and managing uncertainty and complexity to backtrack. Yet, humans have short memories. Carry your hard-won leadership lessons forward, or the subsequent storms might find you and your organization floundering and crashing on the rocks.

The emerging storm

A good percentage of you reading this have never experienced the ravages of inflation on their customers, organizations and households. If you came to the workforce post-2008ish, you’ve never experienced living, working and leading through a recession.

Don’t underestimate how tough this economic situation, and your situation, can get.

We’re all feeling the beginning bites of inflation at the gas pump, in the grocery store and in our daily retail endeavors. On the organization side, we’re plagued by the inability to get the things we need to manage our businesses and meet customer needs on a timely or cost-effective basis.

We have a central bank playing with tools in a complex system to solve a wicked problem where cause, effect and timing aren’t entirely predictable. There’s a possibility their machinations will provide the nudge needed to push the US into a deep recession.

We’re adapting to a world where the pandemic is never far from our minds as the next wave of variants looms on the horizon with unknown implications.

Add in all manner of geopolitical stress points and fractures, and the situation grows murkier.

It’s all about to change

Memo to those of you enjoying the power dynamic that has led to the Great Resignation: That’s about to end as the power dynamic between employers and employees shifts back to the former.

The forecast is most definitely for sudden and sustained storms.

Yet, we’re not approaching this turbulence blind or unable to defend ourselves. We’ve navigated one of the most challenging times in modern history, and we’re making it through — albeit scarred, but hopefully steeled and better prepared for what’s to come.

Here’s a reminder of the hard-fought and gained leadership lessons we all need to carry into the next storm. We can’t afford to lose track of them.

6 leadership lessons to help navigate the economic storm

  1. Uncertainty viewed as an ally promotes different thinking and innovation.

One of the remarkable outcomes of our pandemic experience is the recognition of the power of individuals coming together to shift their thinking in near real-time. I’ve spoken with many leaders and managers who found the need to think differently about their businesses, products and services invigorating. One offered, “We’re better today at both listening to and observing what’s happening in our markets and adjusting our plans than we’ve ever been. This situation taught us how to be agile again.”

Effective leaders are working hard to eliminate “We’ve always done it this way” thinking and engage and involve everyone in thinking differently about how they serve their stakeholders.

  1. Strategy development is part of the business process, not an event.

It took a global pandemic for many leaders to recognize the work of strategy. Deciding where and how to compete, invest and focus is a process, not something you decide at an annual strategy retreat. Strategy-as-a Process is replacing the event-driven approach of traditional strategic planning.

Succeeding with Strategy-as-a-Process requires senior leaders to ensure a strategy layer is added to the traditional operating system. It demands kicking strategy out of the exclusive club at the top of the organization and involving the people experiencing customers firsthand. This work involves teaching individuals to look beyond the organization’s walls and even industry boundaries for events that portend unique opportunities and threats. It includes developing and sustaining an ideas-to-actions discipline.

  1. A valuable reframe of profit is underway.

The profits-at-all costs mantra no longer hunts. While profits fuel mission and are essential to sustaining a healthy organization, leaders must maintain a view that encompasses more than just the bottom line.

In his classic, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens shares a valuable leadership lesson via the ghost of Marley: 

Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.” 

This thinking feels right for our troubled world where so many of our institutions and approaches are under pressure.

My early thinking on the role of the enterprise and the topic of profits was influenced by Panasonic Group founder Konosuke Matsushita. “The enterprise’s mission is to contribute to society’s development by supplying products and services of superior quality that are useful in people’s lives…,” he believed. As for profits, Matsushita viewed them as a reward for making a positive contribution to society.

This theme of reward for contribution resonates with today’s workforce. We’ve learned, or at least have been reminded, that people care about other people and causes, not just profits. As we move into the economic storm, I suspect this leadership lesson is more valuable than ever.

  1. Learning and innovation mostly happen outside the C-suite.

Everything important in an organization happens close to customers and partners. The best thing we can do as managers and organizational leaders is build learning systems that remove friction from the process of translating insights into actions. This thinking is a sea change in the philosophy of supervision that is still embedded in so many cultures.

If you need to supervise people, you’ve got the wrong people. Instead, empower your people to sense and respond and refine in pursuit of serving customers.

  1. People care about work they care about.

There’s a remarkable power in helping individuals discover and engage in the work they genuinely care about. We’ve learned that allowing people to leverage their superpowers and interests for some part of their daily lives pays ample dividends in engagement and retention, not to mention creativity, collaboration and innovation. Succeeding at helping people uncover work they love demands a mind shift away from the traditional supervisory thinking.

  1. Great managers coach for growth and career, not compliance and control.

If there’s one lesson that must be embedded in our go-forward approach to managing and leading, it’s the emphasis on coaching for growth and career versus managing for compliance and control.

Traditional approaches to managing viewed employees as mostly interchangeable parts and burdensome costs that required constant supervision to ensure they were doing what was expected of them. Thank goodness we’ve learned the truth: Organizations flounder, flail and fail without motivated, empowered people able to contribute their skills and talents.

The most successful leaders moving forward will work hard to help people grow their performance and their careers. There can be no return to thinking of people as costs or interchangeable parts, which dominated in the industrial revolution and before the pandemic.

The bottom line

The past few years have been brutal on many levels. The forecast looking forward is for more of the same, just in different forms. We are well-served by tuning into the hard-fought and -won lessons of leading and managing that this experience has taught us. I suspect we’ll have ample need to put those leadership lessons to work in the next chapter.

Art Petty is an executive and emerging-leader coach, author, speaker and workshop presenter with experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership. Visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles.


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