Brexit Chaos: A guide for managers


At times of adversity, real leaders show resolve, communicate, look to the future and - occasionally - admit that they don’t have all the answers. Lessons from CMI’s new Bouncing Back research

Matt Scott

Every day brings another twist in the Brexit tale as political parties fall into disarray and individual careers and ambitions hit the rocks. Financial markets are volatile, customers are twitchy, government is providing little clear direction on what’s to come. The official opposition cannot recruit enough MPs to fill a shadow Cabinet.

Managers up and down the country are left with the unenviable task of having to navigate the new economic and political landscape – and anticipate and react to chaotic daily fluctuations.

In this context, this week, CMI publishes a timely report on how to equip our managers – and the nation – with the leadership skills to manage in times of uncertainty.

The headline finding of Bouncing Back: Leadership lessons in resilience is that most managers (94%) have faced crises during their career.

However, little more than half (55%) have, in their own opinion, handled their own crisis professionally.

While mistakes and crises inevitably happen, it appears that are seldom equipped to cope. Looking to the future, it is essential that we learn from them if we are to move forward.

Time to listen

CMI’s report draws on a survey of managers as well as individual stories of personal setback.

Stephen Robertson, who stepped down from the board at Woolworths shortly before the high-street retailer went into administration, said that his experiences are actually helping him in the non-executive director roles he holds today.

“Woolworths has been invaluable in terms of knowledge, stories and experiences, which I am using to help other people,” he said, speaking at one of CMI’s Bouncing Back events. “I am able to say, ‘I was at Woolworths; I’ve been there and it’s ugly, so let’s do something else’.”

CMI chief executive Ann Francke said it was essential that the nation’s political and business leaders listened to the findings of the report and be ready to learn from past mistakes.

“Brexit will claim the careers of many political and business leaders for whom failure – and its consequences – are foreign territory,” she said. “But the ability to cope with it [failure] is the grit from which true leaders are made. The knockbacks that come from crises teach you how to tough it out, survive and grow – but only if you’re ready to learn.

“We need a culture in which it’s ok for leaders to have the confidence to say ‘I don’t know’ when they don’t have the answers. Doing so creates a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ that picks people up when they fall. They’ll come back stronger and with the trust of the people they lead.”

Time for a culture change

An absence of professional management is a major factor behind crises, according to the CMI survey of 1,100 managers. Some 78% blamed a lack of support from senior management and 68% of managers cited culture failure as responsible.

Nick Leeson, the former rogue trader whose illegal trading brought down Barings, said that a culture of fear and incompetence at the merchant bank was the reason he was able to get away with his illegal trading for so long.

“People weren’t being admonished and they weren’t being reprimanded; there was no real managerial-employee type of relationship at that time,” he said. “They became comfortable with the way things were happening. Because the [illegal] account became this catch-all account, everybody was very comfortable.

“They were well looked after, and it became an accepted practice. A lot of people suggest there was collusion between me and the other people on the trading floor, but they were just naive.”

Time to look forward

With the nation divided at the result of the referendum and the future of the United Kingdom in doubt, it’s all too easy for public debate to descend into finger pointing.

The CMI research, however, shows the importance of looking to the future in times of turmoil and uncertainty.

Lord Browne of Madingley, who famously lost his position at BP after misrepresenting his personal circumstances, said at one of the Bouncing Back events: “The future is the only thing that matters, the past is not important. It is what it is and we move forward.

“The answer was to build the future, and do it in tiny steps.” For Oliver Robbins, appointed this week to lead the government’s Brexit unit, that insight may well be ringing loud and clear.

Among managers in CMI’s survey who have dealt with a crisis, three-quarters (77%) now take a more active approach to risk management. This includes encouraging colleagues to discuss learnings more openly (81%), and communicate more effectively (83%).

Most managers who have overcome adversity (84%) said that, as a manager, they are more prepared now to handle a similar crisis in the future; 85% say they now actively work to create and maintain a good workplace culture.

Time to find your resilient streak

Rachel Lowe, a serial entrepreneur whose business Destination Board Games went bankrupt, knows the importance of resilience in the face of adversity.

“When everything went wrong, the effects were devastating,” she said. “I lost absolutely everything. It wasn’t just a case of losing the business; it was very much a case of losing my mental state of mind.

“It takes courage to come back. You have to remember the successes, the positives, and keep going.”

CMI’s top 3 recommendations for leaders and managers coping with a major setback

1. Failure is acceptable – just so long as you learn from it

Destigmatising failure is essential for creating a resilient organisational culture. Senior managers must provide their support to help employees cope with knockbacks and failure, and to learn from it.

2. Accept, re-evaluate and face forward

Managers who have survived and bounced back from crises say that taking responsibility, facing reality and looking forward were essential to helping them bounce back.

3. Having the right mindset for resilience

People and communication skills, as well as clear strategic thinking, are all named by managers as the three most effective tools for dealing with a crisis.

Find out more about CMI’s research on handling adversity, including the full report and video interviews, at

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