Business lessons leaders can learn from the pandemic

COVID has arguably caused the greatest disruption to society since World War II. In just a few short weeks, it forced massive change to how organizations function, changes that might have taken years otherwise, and, in some way, it changed everyone’s personal priorities. After COVID has eased, there will be no going back. Our world has changed forever and we need to learn the lessons the pandemic has taught us.

COVID has been a rollercoaster, both practically and emotionally, full of peaks and troughs. The initial shock, disbelief and denial when COVID first hit, were met with a heroic response from essential workers. But as time passed, we recognized this was going to be a marathon, not a sprint. The vaccine vision gave us a positive boost, but then the realization dawned that we wouldn’t see an impact until early 2021 dampened spirits. This ultimately put us in the vaccine versus variant race, which we are still fighting, with varying levels of success.

Given these experiences, overlaid with loss of business revenue, the shift to working from home, lockdowns, illness and tragedy, what positive lessons can we learn from the myriad of negatives we have suffered? What are the factors that enabled some organizations to get through, and which of these are indicators of how organizations and their leaders can be successful in the future?

As an ex-military officer, when COVID first began to impact our world, I predicted that a key factor in organizational success (or failure) would be its ability to change and its leaders’ ability to adapt. Much like how military leaders are depended upon to get things done in high-pressure, dynamic environments, as COVID unfolded, leaders needed to adopt certain characteristics to ensure their businesses survived these times

Some of these qualities and attitudes included things like developing a common purpose or a big picture, if they didn’t have one already, and communicating it clearly to their teams. They needed truly empowered people and inspiring leaders to guide the way. They needed to start thinking more “we, not me,” and encourage working together across silos with clear responsibilities. Leaders needed to look for any opportunity they could to gain an advantage. This involved rapid decision-making as situations changed quickly in those early days of the pandemic.

But that’s easy for me to say having been put through a long assessment and development program at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst — I was trained to do just that. For the typical corporate executive, being able to make that transition to any significant degree is an achievement in itself, one that not everybody was able and/or willing to make. This is reflected in a comment I recently heard from a mid-level manager who simply said, “COVID showed us who the real leaders were and who was just managing, and seniority wasn’t a factor in that.

But this wasn’t just about COVID. What successful leaders and organizations did before COVID, from both my experience and almost every case study I have seen, were these simple day-to-day actions. These actions aren’t sector-specific — they work everywhere — and they delivered success before COVID, delivered survival during COVID and will deliver success post-COVID.

COVID was thus the ultimate test. If your organization and leaders were performing these tasks prior to COVID’s impact, and they could gear up to bridge the gap between where they were and where COVID demanded they be to survive, you passed.

Based on the actions that helped businesses survive, what’s important going forward in order for organizations to achieve post-COVID success?

1. A powerful, focused purpose: Everyone, from top to bottom, needs to know why they do what they do, and believe in it.

2. Keep it slick and simple: Everything should be as simple as possible. Specifically, communication and decision-making, allowing decisions to be made at the lowest practical level.

3. Inspired and empowered people working in partnership: People should know what needs to get done and should be allowed to get on with it, even across silos.

4. Seek opportunity: Constantly look for ways to do things better. Become more innovative and entrepreneurial any chance you get.

5. Change champions: Everyone should embrace change, transformation and agility as part of their day-to-day thinking and working, creating routes to future success.

So, perhaps the biggest lesson we can learn from COVID was, in fact, confirmation that what delivered success pre-COVID was critical for survival during COVID, and will be even more important post-COVID with the new world of work and increasing demands from investors, employees and customers.

Who can make it happen? On a team level, every individual leader can, and that requires another traditional military focus: leading by example. That’s a timeless lesson, one no leader should ever forget if they want to succeed.

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