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Business School: How to deal with a post-pandemic downturn

Professor Stefan Allesch-Taylor on how to lead your business through troubling times

In his latest Business School column, serial entrepreneur, CBE, Professor of the Practice of Entrepreneurship and Fellow at King’s College London, Stefan Allesch-Taylor, explains that, yes, bad times are coming – but with a forward-thinking approach the post-pandemic slump could represent a great opportunity.

‘There’s a bad moon rising.’ That was the cryptic text I received on Monday. From anyone else I would think it was a very weird text but, to be honest, my long-time business partner, Matthew Gill, specialises in weird, so I wasn’t too surprised. I don’t know what was stranger really, the text or the fact that I knew exactly what he meant. It was a call to arms which I am now passing on to you: there is a bad moon rising.

stefan allesch taylor

Professor Stefan Allesch-Taylor

Let’s get some context. The UK is a few days away from the end of government supported furlough. So far over 700,000 jobs have been lost during the pandemic. From March 2020 to September 2020 the number of people on benefits has risen by 120% to 2.7 million with the hardest hit group being 16-24 year olds (partly due to their prevalence in hospitality but this figure doesn’t bode well for the future of so many young people). The Office of Budget Responsibility – the UK’s spending watchdog – has said optimistically that unemployment will hit 9.7% at best, perhaps 13.2% at worst. That’s over 4 million people. Normalisation will be between 2022 and 2024. They ‘think’. I mean, who can know? And yet here business leaders stand with the weight of protecting assets, jobs and livelihoods on their shoulders. Playing three-dimensional chess in the dark.

A bad moon rising indeed.

I am seeing lots of social media memes about the end of 2020 with a sincere sense of shared good riddance. I have no doubt, however, that business leaders understand well that the ticking off of a day in a December calendar is going to change very little in their day to day lives. Of course, the pandemic is not a black swan event for every business – some have capitalised on behaviour changes and others just got lucky being there. But the pandemic’s true economic effects don’t take seven days of isolation to show the symptoms. They take months, if not years, to come through and can be just as deadly as the virus itself.

pandemic recession office

It’s not all doom and gloom of course – from gardening and e-learning to food delivery and online meeting platforms, some businesses are doing well. However, my message to them is the same as to everyone else: challenges are coming as consumer confidence drops, belt tightening begins and the real social damage of the 16-24 year olds in our country being robbed of their opportunities start to bite.

There’s your context. I’m sorry it looks bleak. But for you as an individual leader it doesn’t have to be. There has probably never been a better time to make changes or put forward innovations to your partners or employers. We need to do more for less, be radical in our thinking in some respects, be just a little more ambitious and not be afraid to work on, research and importantly voice these changes now.

I understand that it’s very hard to contemplate new things when you are working hard getting the most out of what is working and assessing what isn’t. On the latter, what isn’t, for many it comes back to the 2021 ‘magic dust’ – too many businesses are waiting for the high water rising effect of ‘normalisation’ to solve their problems without daring to think ‘change’. If you subscribe to that view you are probably doing yourself and your organisation a disservice. Waiting for something to happen is the surest way to ensure nothing happens – at least nothing good.

pandemic recession

I completely understand that a time where rationalisation, job losses and cost cuts are painful realities, putting your head above the parapet with a new way of doing things or a new business line seems counter intuitive. However, I believe investors and boards have never been more receptive to well researched and considered ideas. They don’t have to be radical and they certainly don’t have to be ‘off brand’ – many companies have a natural extension to their brands that are either un- or under exploited. Let’s not kid ourselves either, many industries were being battered by the winds of change driven by the maturing of ‘older’ technology or the influx of new technology long before the events of 2020 unfolded. For those, this is the opportunity to make real changes using the pandemic as a platform to springboard innovation.

The final point on this is don’t be afraid of failure. Two kids in the mid-1970’s, let’s call them William and Paul, started a company called Traf-O-Data (seriously) that read paper tapes from computers. It tanked. It was awful. (I could’ve told them that with that brand!) William and Paul weren’t happy – but they learned a lot from the experience and on 4 April 1975 they created their next venture: Microsoft.

Yes, there’s a bad moon rising, so what? Embrace it as an opportunity to do more, to take sensible calculated (not speculative) risks and aspire not to simply get back to 2019 performance but to grow as you go through to 2021. Go for more and begin now.

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