“When you have to act, act quick”: Leading from uncertainty to recovery

Written by Ann Francke OBE Tuesday 02 March 2021
Don’t try to forecast what happens next, because you can’t. Instead, think of scenarios. Here’s a how-to guide from top corporate leader Mike Clasper CBE
Ann Francke OBE, CMI's CEO

It’s been a global pandemic that has caused global challenges and demanded global leadership. For our latest CMI Better Managers Briefing I met with Mike Clasper CBE, who is the chair of two global companies: thread manufacturer Coats and SSP Group, an operator of food and beverage outlets in travel locations worldwide, including Upper Crust and Ritazza. I asked Mike – who also chairs management consultancy Bioss and is a past president of CMI – to explain some of the lessons he has learned during the last 12 months of helming global organisations, and to offer advice to us all as we set out on the road to recovery.

Early warnings and quick actions

Through their operations in Asia, both Coats and SSP had an early view of the crisis which enabled them to be “ahead of the game” and take decisive steps quickly, says Mike. “Coats benefited from being in Vietnam where the government did a really good job in terms of containing the virus. Our factories in Vietnam adopted a track and trace system that was modelled on what the Vietnamese  government had done,” he explains. “Because we saw what was going on in China, we began to order PPE across our global workforce. So, by late February, track and trace and PPE were in place across all the factories around the world.

“At SSP, we saw in mid- to late February [2020] the signs of a drop-off in retail sales in Asia, and when the virus hit Italy, the management team there was one of the first to raise capital to protect the balance sheet. At the time, people were saying, ‘what are you rushing around for?’ But getting in first and getting it done was a real benefit. When you have to act quick, act quick.”

Scenario-plan, don’t forecast

Organisations and their workers are facing levels of uncertainty that none of us has ever experienced, argues Mike. “You can talk about things like the financial crisis or 9/11, when I was involved in aviation at the time. But I don't think anybody has faced this level of uncertainty.”

His advice to the two companies he chairs? Don’t try to forecast what happens next, because you can’t. Instead, think of scenarios. It's advice that works as well for personal career planning as it does for company strategy.

“Don’t get trapped into trying to find a false certainty,” cautions Mike. “You've got to think in scenarios, considering several options and thinking, if it goes that way, I'll do that. But if it goes this way, I'll do this. Of course, choosing when to take those options or cancel them is a real skill. So, think through how you are going to decide when to make the call. Because you can't keep all options running forever.”

Increase cognitive diversity

“Through my work with Bioss I’ve discovered that some people on leadership teams have a high capability to be comfortable in a world of uncertainty,” explains Mike “Others, even though they may be highly intelligent, feel very uncomfortable if they can't have an answer or a clear view of the future.

“At the start of the crisis, I assumed it would be better to have leaders who all belong to the first group, and not stressed by the level of uncertainty and complexity. But actually – and this has been a learning for me – as the crisis has gone on, I’ve realised cognitive diversity is a subtle but important and necessary form of diversity in enabling teams to manage through a crisis.”

According to Mike, most people are uncomfortable with change and uncertainty, so leaders must not lose touch with how the rest of their organisations are feeling, communicating appropriately and with greater empathy. CMI research confirms that communication and empathy are two of the top managerial traits people want from their leaders at this time.

“It also means enabling employees to push issues up rather than hold onto them if they are making them very stressed,” he advises. “People working for you have to make decisions in this uncertainty and are almost certainly feeling stress and discomfort.”

Let the information flow

Mike says he is disappointed at the lack of evidence of clear global leadership during the pandemic. “Looking back on 9/11 again, for example, security regimes were put in place across the world very quickly, there was global cooperation and international bodies like IATA really got stuck into tackling the issues,” he recalls. “Contrast that with this crisis, where – one year on – we still have unanswered questions over vaccination passports, how we're going to travel, and how the testing will be done.

“That spirit of international cooperation between the big economies is missing and the lack of global leadership is having an effect on the important global bodies, whether it be the World Health Organization, IATA or World Trade Organization.”

Another global leadership lesson that must be learned, says Mike, is to end the secrecy about things that are of global importance. “Let the information flow,” he urges. “We've got to get much better at sharing knowledge. Patents and competitive advantage are important, but when the global community urgently needs to come together on pandemics, climate change or whatever, we need to share.”

You can watch our conversation in full here. Don’t forget to check out the other Better Managers Briefings and recorded webinars also hosted on our YouTube channel.

How about joining one of our upcoming events? Find a full list here, including a panel of experts discussing the importance of creating change.

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