It is genuinely difficult for leaders today to think ahead to how they’re going to lead their businesses, departments, governmental jurisdictions, trade organizations, etc, out of the present darkness of pandemic. After all, they’re practically overwhelmed by managing the disruption day-to-day to remain open and active.
Here’s the thing…Leaders, the preponderance of your focus has to be on the long term. Yes, it is absolutely necessary for you to devote some measure of your mental and physical energy to the present situation. But unless you are a single-entity business or office, you must lead the thinking on what will happen when the pandemic recedes. While you have no idea when everything will be back to normal, you need to use your time wisely now. You must shape the effort your organization makes to recover. You cannot wait for that until someone in Washington DC, or Brussels, or your state capitol tells you it is OK to come out for air. YOU need to start thinking and planning now.
Your job is maintaining organizational clarity and focus on the vision. It is easy to revert to what got you promoted years ago, namely being the best doer at every level you rose through. But today you have doers who you or your predecessors specifically selected for their ability to do. You are needed to lead. Get out of the way of the doers and focus on the long term.
You will have to lead your team to develop a recovery strategy. I cannot overstate the importance of this step. If you think that when this is all over, you wil just go back to business as normal, you are very likely in for at best a rude awakening and quite possibly, a quick failure after having survived the pandemic. That is because during the pandemic, all the steady state variables your operations rely on in normal times have been upended. Very little will be the same right away. Everyone else will be waking from hibernation at the same time. Everyone else will be, just like you, looking for their resources to start up again. And they may not be available at all, and if so, certainly not at the quantities and times you are used to having them.
So you will need to implement a strategy that you ought to be developing right now. Strategy is matching resources to objectives. Both are finite. While your objectives may be modest, your resources will almost certainly be limited. Even if you have large cash reserves, the resources you need to procure to get back to normal operations may not be available right away. Difficult decisions must be made for prioritization. You simply can’t say everything is top priority and be taken seriously. So start thinking now about your prioritization.
Coronavirus didn’t change the game. It made clear the stark realities of the system the international business community deliberately designed over time to save costs. Coronavirus showed what happens in a highly mobile world with global instant communications and (in human historic terms) near instant travel from nearly any place on earth to nearly any other place on earth. That information and travel system made inventories obsolete. Barcodes tell Wal Mart headquarters in Arkansas when a bar of soap is bought in Altoona. The corporate software automatically orders new stocks of soap and the same barcode tells the store clerk exactly where to put it on the shelf. There is no more “in the back” for store clerks to check when some item is out of stock. That saves money on having to pay for leasing, heating and lighting warehouses as well as the people to work them.
That same efficiency has an inherent risk built into it. Any disruption of that chain naturally causes cascading effects downstream. And no leader can claim ignorance or surprise when the risk becomes a reality.
So what do you need to plan for now? You’re going to have to think through short term and long term objectives. In the short term, you will need to figure out whether your pre-production supply and and post-production delivery chain will naturally resume its pre-pandemic state. If so you need to decide whether you can wait for your natural chain to reach you or whether you need to position yourself near the front of the queue vis-a-vis all the others who will also be jockeying for position. If it is the latter, you will have to have a lot of information on your competitors and your partners and what they need and how you fit in this game of chess. You certainly can’t simply order your operations manager to make it happen and expect your pre-pandemic state to magically appear.
In the long term, you will need to consider whether the risk of another corona-like event is likely, and if so, whether you are willing to accept whatever befalls your operations. Or you may decide that you will spend the extra money on some spare inventory and spare production capacity so that in the next crisis (please don’t think this will be a one-off; please) you will be positioned to continue operations and even thrive when everyone else is struggling.
To do achieve those objectives, you will need to determine your means available to achieve the objectives you desire. You must exhaustively list all your assumptions and aggressively challenge and validate them. Now is the time to write on your white board or open a shared document with your leadership team and list think through those assumptions that are so fundamental that you don’t even realize you’re making them.
Assumptions like having electricity and manpower to run your lines. The ability to move freely. Availability of internet and WiFi. The ability to talk to all members of your team whenever you need to at the same time. You probably assume that if one of your key people is sick or in the hospital, someone else can fill in at the same level without any decrease in productivity. How comfortable are you in getting input from half of your principal decision-makers’ deputies or seconds if they weren’t available to talk with you? These assumption drills are not only important, they can be very interesting and intellectually stimulating for you and your team.
You will need to develop time-phased intermediate objectives and measurement criteria to know when you have reached them and prioritize your resources so that you stay on track to each successive step. It is likely that as the economy and transport systems and your logistics chain start moving again, it will build gradually. Not everything will be able to be done at the same time. You’ll have to prioritize. You’ll have to share your prioritization decisions with your team and make sure everyone knows what your goals are to keep working on attaining your objective even when you can’t speak with them or get their inputs.
This pandemic and resulting economic stress has shown all leaders that they cannot wake up every day and have hope as the foundation for their business. They have to be grounded in reality and evidence. They have to make difficult choices and be deliberate in what they do, or else be honest with your share-holders and your own leaders that you are a blade of tall grass blowing with whatever direction the wind takes you. Rather than blowing with the wind, make yourself and your organization strong and work hard to shape your own recovery.