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Change Leadership Performance Strategy

New normal, next normal or old normal

How will you get out of the COVID-19 crisis? Change is inevitable. That much we know. How do you deal with the changes that are ahead of you? Do you see them as an opportunity for a new future? Or would you rather return to the old normal?

What will your future look like?

“Never waste a good crisis”, Winston Churchill once famously said. If COVID-19 has proven one thing to all of us, we need to be prepared for change at any point in time. Change always presents opportunities. The question is whether we’re open to it and ready to embrace and act on it. Making the change happen successfully depends on many things, but one thing predominantly. People.

Personal story
Two weeks ago I traveled again for the first time in 10 weeks. I drove to the Netherlands, partly because I had to drive a lot there and partly because I didn’t feel like going by plane yet. I moderated a global two-day virtual train the trainer for a client. This client decided that developing people needed to continue and found a way. We had people from all over Europe attending the training, and we made it work (ask me for tips if you’re interested). Will it always be like this? Probably not, but it’s proven that we can grow people differently.

I also used the opportunity to visit friends, family, and some business contacts (respecting social distancing). Then I got myself tested because I had the choice to either go for 14 days in quarantine or to be able to show a negative test while returning to the Czech Republic where I live. Travel won’t be the same very soon, but if you’re willing to adapt, you can make it work. And that’s my key message for today. Are you ready to embrace the change?

What’s your context?
For you, your teams, and your companies to successfully come out of this crisis, you need to ask yourself a few questions. I’m going to ask you these questions today and then discuss my thoughts about them.

My first question is: what’s your context?

Everyone’s context is different. Whether you’re a food retailer, a company in the travel and leisure industry, or a consultant, you have experienced this past period differently. Context is critical, and you first need to get clear on what’s your context is? It’s tough to provide you with one-size-fits-all answers because they don’t exist.

There are a few common denominators though which I discussed in my blog “Leading when your business is on the line”:

1. Self. How you deal with yourself and others in this time of crisis is extremely important. Not only what you do matters. Who you are to yourself and others matters even more. People, often afraid of what may happen to them, are looking to you for direction. Therefore, they need you to be calm and positive, they need you to demonstrate trust and care, and they need you to provide clarity and direction. You will need to model to them what they will need to model to others, whether colleagues or relatives. To do so, you need to make sure you find the right balance between leading others and finding time for yourself to stay sane.

2. People. People come first. Now more than ever. They need to see you as a person with empathy for them first. They need you to listen before you talk first. They need to feel you understand how dire the situation is for them. Show them that you care. Then they need you to demonstrate your vision on how to get out of this situation. They want you to be radically transparent with them. Tell them exactly what’s going on and what it means for them. Tell them what you need from them. Be clear on the sacrifices you’re asking them to make, explaining why and for how long. Show them you’re willing to invest money to keep them safe. This is your time to show your values and demonstrate the right behaviors.

3. Cash. It’s remarkable how few leaders know precisely when they run out of cash. In crises like this, that’s the very first thing you need to figure out. You need to know precisely when it’s game over and then work your way backward. It sounds harsh, but that’s the way it is. Once you know your cash zero date, you can start identifying internal measures (other revenue streams, cost cuts) and external measures (loans; grants; governmental support). Make sure you do some honest scenario analyses and prepare for the best, worst, and most likely scenario. Finally, if you believe in the quote by Winston Churchill to “never let a good crisis go to waste,” you need to spend time identifying new opportunities as well. Most new ideas emerge from disruption when our backs are against the wall.

4. Rhythm. I’m a firm believer in rhythm and rituals as a crucial factor to success. Especially in times of crisis, you need to establish a rhythm that helps you and your people. Communication is key. Create a daily routine that’s clear to everyone, and that keeps an eye on the ball. In these extraordinary circumstances, I would even suggest a check-in twice a day. One in the morning to set the plan for the day. One at the end of the day, to discuss the execution of the plan and look forward to tomorrow’s day. Yes, that sounds intense, and it is. When your cash zero date comes close, things are intense. Let people know that you don’t do all this because you don’t trust them. You do it to ensure no time is wasted, and things keep moving. And while doing all this, make sure you keep yourself and your people in mind. Ask people first how they feel before you ask them to do something. Express gratitude frequently. And while optimistic, don’t be afraid to talk about your fears also. You’re also human.

Hopefully, you will have the crisis response under control, and you can start looking at the immediate future. That means you’re now looking at the role of your company and leadership in the longer term. Again, you need to ask yourself a few good questions.

What are your lessons learned?
I believe there are two types of leaders coming out of this crisis. Those who can’t wait to go back to the old normal and those who see the change and want to embrace the opportunity inside of it? Which type of leader are you? Do you want to go back as fast as you can? Or do you want to explore the next normal?

If you belong to the first group, you’re still in denial. The old normal will not come back. Things have changed. People have changed. Rhythms have changed. You will need to figure out what it is that you and your people want of the future. The best way to do that is to engage in a company-wide conversation and talk about lessons learned.

What have you learned during Covid-19? What went well? What didn’t go well? What surprised us? Good or bad? What new opportunities do we see? What’s something we can now say goodbye to? What’s something we need no matter what, and we can’t change? Spend time asking these questions. Don’t go straight back to how things were? Don’t waste a good crisis.

If your boss is a ‘let’s get back to usual kind of person, and you have troubles to convince him (or her) to change, suggest at least this lessons-learned exercise. Very few people will decline to do so. And it doesn’t have to be expensive.

What do you want?
Once you’re clear on your context and know your lessons learned, you need to get clear on what you want. Your vision for the future may have changed. How many restaurants have started online delivery and will keep it? How many IT consultants have discovered they can serve their customers online and will keep it? How many corporate offices have found their people to be productive from home and keep it (to some extent)?

I read an article this week of three companies who went extreme and canceled their office space (entirely). They learned they don’t need it, and they want to experiment. It doesn’t mean they won’t meet face to face anymore. They just won’t do it in an office. And what opportunities will come from that?

Is your vision for the future still the same? Or has it changed? Or should it change? You need to figure out for yourself, your team, and/or your company what you want from the future? And if it’s the same as it was before, that’s fine, but make sure you’ve asked yourself a few critical questions.

Any vision needs to be inspiring, concrete, and crystal clear; it needs to be practical and straightforward so you can execute it and be able to ‘sell’ it to all your stakeholders. Does your vision meet these standards? Or is it blurry and not bright coming out of this crisis? If so, stop and think. You need to design your new future. Your foundation has changed. “Greatness only happens by design.”

How do you deal with resistance?
No matter what, you’re going to deal with resistance. Any change comes with resistance. Most people simply don’t like change. Assuming you’re convinced that change needs to happen (again, if not, you’re in denial), you need to enroll your people in the new vision for the future.

To do so, there are a few critical elements that need to be in place. They’re all dependent on one crucial component. Communication. There is never enough communication. You can’t over-communicate. A leader of mine once stated that “by the time you get sick and tired of hearing yourself saying the same thing over and over again, that’s the time people will start to listen to what you’re saying.

To overcome resistance, you need to be able to demonstrate that back to business-as-usual is not an option; you need to be able to present a compelling, inspiring, clear, and practical vision, and you need to be able to offer a plan to execute your vision. Mind you; this can be a company vision, but also a vision for your function, team, or yourself.

At this point, we have asked ourselves the following questions:

• What’s my context?
• What lessons have I learned?
• What do I want?
• What’s my vision for the future?
• How will I deal with resistance?

That brings me to the last question.

What do you do now?
Whatever it is that you will do next, you need to prepare yourself. I hope that you’re convinced that running back to the old normal is a recipe for disaster.

I also hope you see we can’t answer all these questions for you just because your context differs from everyone else’s. But we can help you ask the right questions. We can help you answer these questions because we know that asking and answering these questions is not always easy to do.

It requires a work environment that’s safe, that cares about people, and that is courageous enough to embark on a journey into the unknown.

Don’t wait until it’s all over. Now is the time to change. Forge the iron when it’s hot, and that’s now. Make change a priority. Do it now. Otherwise, you lose. Other companies and leaders are dedicating resources right now to take advantage of this crisis.

Enroll yourself and your team. You need to get clear for yourself first. In times like these, we often forget ourselves. We serve our people, our customers, our bosses, but we don’t serve ourselves. In all the busyness, make time for yourself and get your priorities straight.

Whatever your context is, you need to enroll your team in your journey. They need to know and be aligned with your vision moving forward. They need to know why you make the decisions you’re making. They need to hear and see you communicate. That’s your primary role now as leader. Make it clear what you want and how you want to get there. If you do, you’ll be grateful later on. If you don’t, you may have wasted a good crisis.

QUESTION: What are you doing to build your future?

Thank you!

Erikjan Lantink

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