How to Lead During Periods of Uncertainty

By Rita Trehan

Business transformation expert, Rita Trehan, discusses the 7 actions that should be practised by CEOs and business owners to ensure their businesses prosper during periods of uncertainty.

It seems that uncertainty is “the new black” for businesses today, and it’s a fashion trend that needs to be put with last season’s stock.

A rising state of popularism within global macroeconomics, the apparent failing of current corporate governance, the threat of new entrants for established businesses highlight a stark reality. Companies must embrace uncertainty and position themselves for success by not looking at all the things that can erode their business, but instead by facing uncertainty from the vantage point that everything is possible and then seeking options, alternatives and solutions that position them for the new age of work.

In my opinion, there are a series of actions that can be pursued to ensure that businesses prosper and claim a stake in the future. Leading during periods of uncertainty requires paying attention to the following: 

1.  Focus and disciplined prioritisation

“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” is a famous phrase for a reason. In a dynamic and constantly evolving world, leaders must be sure on what they need to focus on. Throwing time, energy and resources into an issue that frankly consumes energy, resources and cost but doesn’t create accretive value is wasteful and costly. Companies that turn their attention to enhancing the edges rather than tinkering with the core of their business are more likely to unleash potential and position their business for success.

If management can analyse and justify that the current system is working successfully, can understand why it is fruitful and can honestly say that it is beneficial for all parties involved, then it begs the question – why change it? In fact, focusing on big change may be more of a hindrance than a help.

On the other hand, being able to recognise when it is time to change is a skill that is invaluable. Change is not just inevitable, it is paramount for longevity, so if you are unable to identify when it is time to adapt or even innovate, then a business will not survive.

Complacency, or even innocent ignorance can make business leaders believe they won’t and can’t fail. Don’t fall into the trap of seeing everything through rose-tinted glasses. With change brings the possibility of a failed effort, but to continue with the cliché, failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

2. Keep monitoring the pulse of your stakeholders

A business simply cannot operate without its stakeholders, whether that be customers, investors or employees. Good businesses identify, prioritise and communicate effectively with their key stakeholders.

Seeking an effective method to actively engage with stakeholders will enable leaders to listen to the pulse of the organisation. It isn’t enough to simply talk to stakeholders, they need to feel listened to and valued at every step of the way. Creating clear opportunities for stakeholders to present their own viewpoints and ideas can help to ensure that everyone is on the same page and the spin-off – gems of knowledge that can lead to innovation and business growth.

Where businesses are switched on enough to already have good channels of communication, leaders need to stay tuned to how internal communications can be affecting team dynamics and morale.

During times of uncertainty, it’s critical to ensure decisions are made objectively and not with an emotional attachment to a business, an idea or an innovation.

In times of uncertainty, informal communication channels have the potential to spiral out of control being fuelled by fear, rumours and confusion where people are forced to make their own conclusions. CEOs and executives must ensure that they are delivering the correct message to keep stakeholders feeling up-to-date and at ease. This information can also be tapped into, creating fantastic insight for leaders to not only address issues and give advice but also to make informed, smarter decisions.

3. Willingness to flex

Flexibility and agility can often be overlooked, but as well as its necessity in being able to keep ahead of the curve, it has more benefit than just being seen as good risk assessment or crisis limitation.

Work environments that do not embrace change and flexibility may find their workforce losing motivation due to a sense of monotony. Boredom fosters unproductivity and an unproductive workforce is costly.

Discouraging flexibility dampens growth; meaning you’ll be left in the dirt whilst your competition blooms around you. Being able to adapt and change (whether it is deemed vital or not) gives businesses the option to seize an opportunity when it arises, instead of missing out due to being unprepared.

Not being adaptable also diminishes innovation within the workplace. Why would stakeholders offer an alternative, when they know there’s no capacity for change?

Don’t fall into the trap of seeing everything through rose-tinted glasses. With change brings the possibility of a failed effort, but to continue with the cliché, failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

Creating an open environment that facilitates innovation and creativity, that encourages all stakeholders to be less resistant to change increases a company’s flexibility. Allowing employees and stakeholders the freedom to experiment in a safe place where “no idea is a bad idea” can avoid a stalemate in inspiration. Reinforcing to stakeholders the idea that adaptability is good and that their opinions and ideas are welcome, will also give them the freedom to fail – and as we know some failures have changed the world forever (Post-It notes and even pacemakers!).

4. Fiscally Savvy

Business leaders, no matter the department or the business, should have a good knowledge on how to stay financially savvy. The financial success of a business is not the sole responsibility of the CEO. By encouraging management and in turn the wider workforce to be sensible and accountable for their expenditure at work, will ensure your business is staying financially and even economically responsible. Knowing where to invest and when to cut loose is critical for businesses in uncertain times. It takes courage to know when to stop investing in ideas or businesses that are not delivering, so using your financial resources wisely and prudently is key. During times of uncertainty, it’s critical to ensure decisions are made objectively and not with an emotional attachment to a business, an idea or an innovation.

Not being able to understand how decisions will affect cash flow is hazardous, especially in times of uncertainty. Great leaders should have the ability to quickly identify potential financial issues and be prepared to steer in another direction if problems arise.

5. Unwavering optimism

I’ve already mentioned how morale can be affected by people feeling left in the dark by a lack of internal communications, but there are also other strategies that can keep employees feeling optimistic, engaged and committed during uncertain times.

Reminding staff of “the bigger picture” and allowing people to feel like their work is contributing to something bigger than just their job role, will instil a sense of purpose to keep staff on track. Being transparent about what is needed and why and when changes are happening is key. The reality is that staying steadfast to a vision and purpose will give people a sense of reassurance.

Making employees and stakeholders feel appreciated is an easy way to keep morale high. There is a really simple way to do this – say thank you. If you can thank an employee on something specific, even better. It’s always a great feeling like you’ve done a great job. If it was a fantastic job, think about rewarding them and celebrate their accomplishments.

Showing employees that members of management are actually human and have the capability of caring will help them believe in you as people. Asking someone how their family is, wishing them a happy birthday or asking how their day is going, are all great ways to keep up happy discussions in the office and make staff feel valued.

Talking to your teams about the “why” they do what they do, rather than just the “how” can make a real difference.

6. Reinforce and connect to the Values

Company values should ignite inspiration in all stakeholders, as well as holding relevancy to both stakeholder and the company’s objectives. They should be embraced by all employees and communicated through every activity the company partakes in.

Creating a work environment that encompasses core principles that employees can believe in and connect with can help employees find more fulfilment in their work. Strong, honest values are easier to connect with and relate to, which should feed into work ethic.

In addition to keeping employees engaged, robust and real values can also attract new stakeholders that share the same values as your business – whether these are investors or partners that share your ethos, or customers who wish to buy into the same dreams.

7. Be visionary

Change is not just inevitable, it is paramount for longevity, so if you are unable to identify when it is time to adapt or even innovate, then a business will not survive.

To truly lead in times of uncertainty, leaders need to be able to look beyond their own business. As well as being able to analyse their own practices, business leaders need to stay true to a vision. This goes far beyond just planning. Foresight is required to have a view of where both the company and its market is heading. The vision is the potential the company could reach when accompanied by proper strategic planning to help bring it to realisation.

Vision is taking the time to form best practice and to constantly reflect upon and review the actions that have led you to your current point, in order to move forward and then ensure that your endpoint is where you actually want to be.

Creating a vision is an imperative first step for business planning. Once the vision has been set, the mission should be to move towards it with every step the business takes. However, as leaders, “tunnel-vision” should be avoided. That is to say that you should not be so set on your final vision that if for whatever reason it cannot be achieved, there is no way to make adjustments or to start parts of the process again.

In summary, there is no point in wasting time, energy and resources on what does not create value, but there is also no point in staying static when the world around us is so dynamic. Being ready and able to change when the time comes is vital. If you are resistant to change when it is required, then attempts to keep a business running efficiently is futile.

Remember to keep your stakeholders close and allow for as much two-way conversation as possible. Remember that your wider stakeholders may be the key to concepts that were not thought of previously and could be the diversification required to keep ahead of the curve (Stakeholder insight is such a fantastic resource that is often undervalued and overlooked!).

Encouraging employees to be flexible and creating environments that allow them to share their ideas can allow for innovation to cultivate and be harvested. Ensure that your employees are valued (saying thank you goes a long way!), happy and that they can connect with your company’s core values to strengthen your brand and help achieve your objectives together. 

About the Author

Rita Trehan is a renowned business transformation expert with over 20 years of experience, and a self-confessed workaholic and ideas junkie. Although she cut her teeth in the realm of HR, her ambition and imagination have driven her beyond such parameters to become the strategy guru, and often the energy, behind a host of successful CEOs worldwide. Rita is the CEO of Dare Worldwide, a business consultancy firm, and the author of ‘Unleashing Capacity’, a book that explores HR transformation. She also frequently speaks on the subject at events and conferences.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.