“Just because the data’s unreliable doesn’t mean you can’t make decisions”

24 April 2020 -

Just because the data's unreliable doesn't mean you can't make decisionsHow do you lead effectively in uncertain times? We got these ten powerful insights from one of the UK’s top entrepreneurial leaders

Sean Williams, Corndel

The world looks quite different to how it did a few weeks ago. The situation is changing rapidly, and no-one knows what the future holds. How are leaders supposed to lead in such uncertain times? Here are 10 tips for leading teams in times of great change:

  1. Don’t procrastinate. Decisions still need to be taken. In times of crisis often no-one really knows what is going on. The lack of data and constantly shifting backdrop makes decision-making hard and uncertain. That’s not a reason to opt out of leading – quite the opposite. Leaders need to act even more decisively than before.
  2. Communicate, communicate, communicate. In uncertain times people do not need additional uncertainty created by leaders not sharing the information that they have. If knowledge is power, then that power is best shared.
  3. Be realistically optimistic. Leaders need to be honest and candid with their people about the situation. There is no point covering up reality. If you lie to people you will lose their trust forever. Leaders should make the facts known whilst projecting confidence and optimism. This is a difficult balance to get right. Too much optimism risks underplaying the seriousness of a situation. Too much candour risks catalysing fear and doubt when these are already in abundance. Great leaders get that balance right.
  4. Give people a vision of what the ‘end’ looks like. People look to leaders to show them a way forward, to give them hope and a direction of travel. Leaders need to communicate that there will be an end to the period of uncertainty and outline a vision of what that end looks like and how we might get there. Showing people how they can personally contribute to that journey gives them a stake in the solution and empowers them to make a difference. People need to see a way through the uncertainty to a better future, and leaders need to give them that.
  5. Give people ways that they can contribute to the solution. Inactivity breeds a sense of hopelessness, powerlessness and gives people too much time for unproductive catastrophising. Individuals want to feel they are doing something useful. Activity gives people mastery over a small bit of the universe when the rest is out of their control.
  6. Find out who the experts are. In times of great uncertainty there are lots of voices claiming that they have special knowledge and insight into what the future will hold. There are genuine experts who can offer insight. But they often don’t have the loudest voices. Great leaders can separate the snake oil salespeople from the genuinely insightful.
  7. Stop doing things that are not important. Uncertainty creates lots of additional personal and organisational challenges. You and your people need to be wholly focused on dealing with the situation at hand. That means jettisoning superfluous work and concentrating all of your resources on what is important.
  8. Be agile. The whole point about uncertainty is that it makes it very hard to plan. Leaders need to have a range of ideas to meet as broad a range of contingencies as possible. And when the unexpected happens, which it will, they need to be able to adapt and change strategy quickly.
  9. Showcase the remarkable. Uncertainty brings out the best and worst in people. Leaders need to hold their teams together and project the common good. Leaders should publicly applaud people who do the right thing and go the extra mile.
  10. Don’t panic. In a stampede more people get killed by the stampede than the original threat. Leaders need to keep a clear head and model rational decision making in the face of adversity.

Sean Williams is chief executive of the vocational training company Corndel that he founded in 2016, which won CMI's Learning Provider Partner of the Year award.

For more brilliant insights like this, visit the CMI’s Leading Through Uncertainty Covid-19 hub.