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Leading in Uncertain Times


There’s no doubt about it, our world can throw us curve-balls from time to time and, living in the UK, we received one a couple of weeks ago as the UK voted to leave the European Union. Whatever your political persuasion, I think we can all agree that the implications of that vote will include a period of economic and business uncertainty as the many detailed points of extricating the UK from the linkages it has with the EU are negotiated and implemented. Vast tomes have already been written on this topic, but precious little has been said about managing a business through such a period of change and unknowns, so let me at least make a start to redress that balance.

At the end of the day, all businesses are staffed with human beings and when shocks happen, people look for guidance, usually from their leaders. Silence from the leadership allows rumours to propagate thick and fast, so it’s important to get on the front foot and set a few things straight. On the morning post-EU referendum for example, I put out a note to my colleagues worldwide acknowledging the result and the consequent turbulence in the world’s stock and currency markets. However, what was most important was a simple reiteration of our company’s focus, our priorities and what we all need to do to be successful in these markets. I have seen similar messages that other leaders sent out to their organisations at a time of sudden change and they all have this similar theme. Acknowledge the facts of the issue, remind the team of what they are there to deliver and a simple, straightforward call to arms around the practical steps that can and should be taken. Keep it simple and keep it authentic and people will tend to respond accordingly, even if the situation or circumstances may not be the most helpful.

Successful businesses are built to adapt to change, so it should be in our DNA from the start. However, when the change is potentially significant and sudden, bigger threats and bigger opportunities emerge. I think it is at times like this that businesses can make a big leap forward if they plan properly, taking advantage of a situation to create or deliver areas of their business that previously seemed impossible to achieve. When the clouds of economic uncertainty gather, it’s a natural reaction in a business to batten down the hatches, restrict investment and basically stall any decision-making until the clouds pass and the future looks more positive. In many cases, that is exactly the right approach, particularly where a business’s financial situation is stretched and survival becomes the highest priority.

During the global crisis that erupted in 2008, many organisations found themselves in this state. However, if a business does not find itself in such peril, it’s surprising how many opportunities for investment become evident if you keep your eyes open and are willing to break with the herd instinct. I have seen several examples of this in my own career, where a crisis created once-in-a-generation opportunities for those able and willing to take them.

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