Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Striking the right chords during a Black Swan: Revisiting the leadership playbook

There is no shortcut for managing people during these tough times. It is evident that though each person's situation and experience is varied, it all funnels down to the same 4 C's which must be adopted to navigate through a black swan.

Published: Jul 3, 2020 04:06:05 PM IST
Updated: Jul 3, 2020 04:12:43 PM IST

Striking the right chords during a Black Swan: Revisiting the leadership playbookImage: Shutterstock

Famously known for leading during crisis, Winston Churchill, the man who led his country through the upheaval of World War II, when taking up his office as a Prime Minister he said, “You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory; victory at all costs; victory in spite of all terror; victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”

The true ordeal of a leader is to know how well he functions in crisis and strikes balance between workflow and workforce change; he is bound to walk the wire to maintain this critical equilibrium. Re-defining multiple strategies to keep the operations afloat, agility towards new developments, rapid adaptability for business continuity and most importantly, engaging employees through continuous and transparent communication, practising empathy, listening and maintain a state of equanimity is what is expected of him.

Madhu Srivastava, group chief human resource officer at diversified miner Vedanta said “People are our biggest assets, and that becomes more important in such times,” Certainly, amidst this apocalyptic pandemic, safety of workforce assumes prime importance. A recent survey conducted across 400 companies also suggests that 71% of the businesses are prioritizing safety of employees. On the other hand, with sudden paradigm shift in the working culture and remote working turning into a new reality, the leaders are faced with a range of challenges in this transition. Addressing the urgent needs such as ensuring an unhampered internal communication, boosting the fear-gripped morale and mood of the people and all forms of technical or emotional virtual assistance to keep the workflows moving are what will help him sail upstream in this furore. Rajat, Director of Sales at a fortune 500 company suggests that engaging the employees by coaching and mentoring, frequently holding celebrations, meetings filled with humour, providing them timely affirmations towards the job security are the key to a positive work culture.

In conclusion, there is no shortcut for managing people during these tough times and upon having conversations with colleagues in the leadership stratum, it is evident that though each person’s situation and experience is varied, it all funnels down to the same 4 C’s which must be adopted to navigate through a black swan.

As, Lao Tzu states “The softest things in the world overcome the hardest things” and likewise, for a compassionate leader, empathizing and handling the workforce with sensitivity will boost up every team’s zeal and zest. Welspun Group’s Chairman, BK Goenka also said that they are constantly sensitising leadership to be tolerant towards mistakes if any; rise to the cause of humanity ahead of everything. Vedanta, a diversified mining company offers psychological counselling helplines to people facing anxiety and stress-related problems.

Moreover, Covid-19 poses a threat to our personal, family and friends’ health and safety thus creating a level of stress that interferes with the usual performing capabilities; most of the leaders that I interacted with tell me that focus on workforce’s health and safety and keeping them motivated throughout this crisis is on priority. For instance, Adobe India proactively distributed sanitizers, masks and a list of do’s and don’ts to all its employees to ensure their safety.

With work-from-home becoming an actuality, and the fine lines between office and home blurring out, the business leaders I got in touch with are of the opinion that: “As the captain, you have to go beyond just work and be mindful of your employee’s personal difficulties or lifestyle challenges and in return share your personal experiences or advices to help them cope up with their work from home schedules. Now, more than ever, your team needs a mentor to overcome this situation, so taking up coaching and mentoring over and above your regular duties will create an impact on your team’s performance”. Amway has constituted a Covid-19 Crisis committee which is responsible for charting out and guiding the crisis strategy for the employees.

Alike being compassionate, if the organisation’s culture is taken care of, other things will also start falling in place as Simon Sinek said “Corporate culture Matters. How management chooses to treat its people impacts everything for better or for worse”. With all the anxiety around the fear of losing jobs and pay cuts, it becomes essential to create a conducive and positive work culture where humour and celebrations are a part of the daily tasks to keep the morale of the people intact. For example, Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages is conducting virtual town halls at all levels of the workforce to keep everyone updated of the latest and seek their inputs on the best course of action, at a given time.

While I was having a chat with another senior leader of a large FMCG company, he mentioned that “It is essential for the management to establish the fact that each person is individually and collectively responsible to achieve the organisation’s goals.” In return, acknowledging every small or big contribution of the team member by rewards and recognition in the form of reward points, achievement badges or ‘best employee of the month’ awards will help create an environment of assurance.

In addition, one of my other colleagues is of the opinion that, “Since the teams are working in silos, Corporate Entrepreneurship must be practised like never before” and as Brian Chesky says “When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing. People can be independent and autonomous. They can be entrepreneurial”. In short, trust your team and give them adequate power to take decisions however ensuring that hierarchy is followed while taking critical decisions.

Indeed, for a business continuity, it is important to keep both the new information and communication going on, as Sydney J says “Information is giving out; communication is getting through”; that is to say, adequate communication by way of employee engagement will help you overcome through this crisis. Likewise, Itel has introduced fitness challenges, quiz and games to keep the employees fit and stress-free along with comic styled tips and tricks to manage working in virtual teams better.

Rajat also adds saying “With the team dispersed and in silos, it is essential to keep the bonds and team spirit intact. Scheduling daily video-call meetings with the team members are being prioritized. Team-building activities like breakout hours, virtual team lunches, coffee breaks or virtual team games to bring about creativity and a sense of organisation belongingness are also a part of the new- routine communication”. Furthermore, there are several companies taking the digital advantage and driving internal engagement campaigns to help employees cope up through spiralling negative thoughts about this uncertain time. They are also investing in a strong communication platform creating an “open-door” policy with their employees, thus driving responsible communication.
With the motto of striking the iron when it is hot, an opportunistic leader would leave no stones unturned to gain competitive advantage in times of crisis. In fact, a study conducted by HBR states how companies not only invested in growth strategies like Learning and Development but also work out an effective cost cutting strategy  while managing to survive the today and also up-sail through a recession the smoothest. To put it briefly, crisis if dealt with an effective manner will lead to innovations and opportunities which otherwise under normal circumstances, would have been dominated by Business As Usual (BAU’s). So considering to seize this lean period, all the leading companies are opting for virtual learning classes in order to stay relevant in the post-covid world.

Laying focus of skills development, in one of the leading HR Magazines, an article talks about how upskilling and investing in Learning and Development has gained supreme importance in the crisis. In order to leverage the lockdown, one of the fastest growing India’s fast food giant, MCDonalds has adapted many of its classroom training modules digitally, and introduced e-learning modules, quizzes, masterclasses by managers and many more creative learning sessions, which employees can access on their phone while in quarantine at home.

In summary, the uncertainty has risen to an unanticipated level and hence every organization demands a leader who not only responds but also act upon proactively and in the right direction. On the whole, a versatile and catalytic leader is what it takes for any business to navigate through a crisis of this magnitude.

In conclusion, with the COVID-19 re-scripting business rules worldwide, the role of leaders for business transformations in a black swan environment would be re-think, re-imagine and re-engage the entire organization with the help of the 4 C’s.

By Dr. Vanita Bhoola, Associate Professor, Head - Centre for Project Management (CPM), Head - Management Development Programme (MDP) and Bhavan’s S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research (SPJIMR), Mumbai.

[This article has been reproduced with permission from SP Jain Institute of Management & Research, Mumbai. Views expressed by authors are personal.]