Overcoming Leadership Paralysis in The Time Of COVID-19

Many questions are keeping today’s C-Suite up at night. Here are some steps that industry leaders can take to resolve them and set their sights on a better future.

Today, executives across the C-Suite of the biggest corporations and brands are scrambling to make sense of the COVID-19 impact. 

Short- and long-term plans have been upended, and some industries are on the brink of collapse. 

Fashion chain J. Crew Group and luxury department store retailer Neiman Marcus Group filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the first week of May, and industries ranging from travel and entertainment to real estate and automotive are feeling unprecedented pressure. At the same time, unemployment could tick above 20% by the end of summer. 



These business leaders are grappling with complex, layered questions on how to navigate the current challenges their organization is facing and what comes next.

In talking with various leaders across the Fortune 500 in recent weeks, several key concerns and common questions bubbled up. What impact is this crisis having on my business in the short term and long term? Will there be opportunities that emerge? Where should I place my bets with so much uncertainty? Is this the right time to invest in innovation-focused work streams? How can I measure the resiliency or longevity of new ideas so I can prioritize innovation with confidence?

How can we read the market and discern useful data from the noise? How can I bring my team along in the process of aligning and prioritizing new bets and actions? How can we discern cyclical (bound to bounce back) versus structural (never coming back) damage? What does the world post-COVID look like? Will there be a return to “normal”? 

It is tempting to sit on the sidelines and wait for the right cues to plan for the full re-opening of the economy, or a second (or even a third) wave, however, both history and the present moment tell us what we do right now will have an outsized impact on businesses, employees, and communities in years to come.

This is not to say that scenario planning is not useful, and smart data and modeling are essential and should be part of any C-Suite tool kit, but scenarios with high complexity and uncertainty can be paralyzing, and paralysis is the enemy. 

The “new world” can be viewed through three lenses -- what is accelerating, what has been disrupted and what new demand spaces have been created. 

Based on these three lenses, industry leaders need to take an approach in which they work toward the goal of a better future and focus their attention on the immediate steps that can get them there. These steps represent actions with many small bets for some, a few bigger ones for others.

Taking action on well-defined opportunity areas in sync with culture can be liberating and it takes us out of reactive mode, generates data, validates assumptions, and gets us closer to a better future.

Over the last few months, we have seen several mega-trends go into overdrive.

These ideas feel strange and new to many people, yet what we’re experiencing as “new” are in fact the latent trends of our time. They have just been thrust to the forefront of popular culture, reshaping how we work, shop, design and drive policy-making decisions, among other things.

Trends like “Bottomless Wellness” capture how this public health crisis is accelerating what was already a growing trend. Despite a severe impact in sectors that require close physical contact (e.g., gyms, therapy), the consumer appetite for wellness is soaring and will intersect and reshape many industries. Or “Work Shift,” which looks at the future of work.

The building blocks were already taking shape before this crisis, making any changes in the present more structural -- and in many ways permanent as well as stimulating -- with even more development and experimentation, leading to new categories, products and work models. 

These are just a few examples of the bigger trends that are becoming immediate opportunities for organizations to tap into.

To take full advantage of these cultural shifts, executives must evolve their mindset from paralysis to action by leveraging a new set of guiding principles for their organizations.

  1. Act today knowing it will define you for the next 10 years. The current pandemic will define us for the next 10 years. The best executives will see the shifts early, lean in now and let it guide a new long-term roadmap.
  2. The future is happening faster, so seize the first mover advantage. Some macro trends have accelerated to the point during the crisis that put them on track to hit key milestones in early 2021 that weren’t projected until 2025. This is the moment to identify those shifts and seize the opportunity for the long term. 
  3. Double your bets. If your strategic roadmap identified 3-6 key bets for the next 2-5 years, double them. Organizations will need to place more bets now to battle uncertainty and to stay ahead of the competition. 
  4. Horizontal is the new vertical. When industries are disrupted, you don’t become more myopic or industry-focused. You look for inspiration and new areas of disruption beyond the walls of your organization and industry. Organizations must cover more space now. 
  5. Build the preferred future. We always talk about moments in time where we can change the game, redefine an industry, disrupt a paradigm. This moment is made for those visionary leaders. This is the time to shape the future we want to see.
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