Leadership and reinvention in an age of disruption

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We live in an age of disruption so what can businesses do to prepare themselves? It’s not just that entire industries are changing rapidly and well-known companies like BHS are going under, that new firms are rising rapidly up the ranks and taking on the establishment, that new jobs are coming online all the time and that many are going to become obsolete in the next decades. There are also the immense shocks to the financial system from geopolitical change such as Brexit.

Everyone feels insecure, but how can businesses negotiate this new disruptive terrain?

Kate Sweetman and Shane Cragun’s new book, Reinvention: Accelerating Results in the Age of Disruption, tackles a question which is central to how we live today and how we plan for tomorrow. It sets out an algorithm, common principles and a set of tools, including work life balance, for addressing a time of radical change. Core skills include flexibility and adaptability to change and the book describes how leaders need to plan in advance for disruption, not wait for it to happen. Those that do will be more likely to survive and prosper, argue the authors.

Their company, SweetmanCragun is a global management consulting and training firm. Sweetman, an expert in leadership development and co-author of Harvard Business Press’ The Leadership Code, says research shows that the companies which did well after the 2008 recession were those that planned ahead, that had CEOS who set aside time in their diary for strategic thinking and didn’t just focus on the day to day.

She says: “It is the nature of the age we live in that things are happening out of left field. That is why companies need to be ready to reinvent themselves.” She adds that good leadership is vital: “Unless you have people who will make it happen, drive it through and who are resilient you will get into difficulties. Crises come because leaders have failed to do the big picture thinking.”

Brexit and the glass cliff

Sweetman, who is based in the US, says Brexit seems to be an “astonishing” example of irresponsibility at the top. “Brexit is definitely an example of failed leadership,” she says.

She adds that the fact that it has led to the UK having its second female prime minister runs true to research about the glass cliff – that is, that women often only get to top leadership positions when there is a crisis, meaning they are also more likely to fail.

Sweetman says that in the face of major disruptions like Brexit whose ripple effects are as yet unknown and will depend on a lot of variables, such as whether your business is an exporting one rather than an importing one, the answer is not to do nothing and hope things get better. “You need to stay very alert and really pay attention to what is going on around you,” she says. “You need to be very aware of the signs coming at you. Talk to people in and outside your industry. Keep up with your reading and do the math to figure out how it will affect you.”

She recommends using scenario planning. “It’s important to look at the possible things that could happen and their consequences – how things might interact – and to be very, very flexible in your thinking,” says Sweetman. She adds that it is vital to bring your team on board. “Anxiety is lessened if there is a feeling someone is taking control, if there is someone saying if such and such happens this is what we are going to do. Have a flexible plan and communicate it to your people. Uncertainty is worse than bad news.”

Engagement and diversity

Sweetman also advises businesses to be creative and bring in more diverse ideas. “Inclusive and open companies did best after the 2008 recession. Fortune favours the brave and good things do come out of change,” she says. “It doesn’t all have to be about fear. There is such a thing as creative destruction.”

She advises: “Keep moving and engage people in your organisation. They will have their own opinions. After the 2008 recession senior leadership teams often withdrew and tried to solve the problems by themselves. The people around them felt uncertain and excluded. That feeling lasted well beyond the actual crisis. You need a long-term view of who you are and what your business’ culture is. That will help you pull together and spread the pain.”

So what makes a good leader in a world of perpetual motion? And how can leaders be resilient when everything is changing all the time? Sweetman thinks good leaders need to be constantly learning and innovating, to be good communicators and to develop a mutual sense of trust and respect with their employees. She has also noticed that many of the best leaders start the day very early in order to have some quiet time for themselves to think and prioritise the day.  “Having five minutes or more to plan the day can make all the difference,” she says, adding that it is something that may help many working parents.

Asked about the role of technology in the age of disruption, Sweetman agrees that it has been in part positive for women, enabling them to work more flexibly and to collaborate in ways they couldn’t before. Her own consultancy has offices opening in six different countries, many as a result of technology and networking. They also work with a range of partners who provide marketing, PR, editorial and social media support on a flexible basis. Many are women. “They are smart, creative people with a portfolio career who are good at building their networks and refreshing them constantly,” says Sweetman.

She adds that flexible working and work life balance are a key aspect of companies that will thrive in the age of disruption because they understand the need for mutual respect between employee and employer. “That kind of culture will benefit women,” she states. But she warns flexible working cannot be bolted on. It has to be in the culture; it has to be “the new normal”, she says.

*Reinvention: Accelerating Results in the Age of Disruption by Shane Cragun and Kate Sweetman is published by Greenleaf Book Group Press, price £16.75.

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