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, reflects on a very strange year and reveals the important business teachings to take from it.
I usually lean towards the philosophical in very troubled times. I think that’s what experience ultimately teaches you. My career has weathered a few ‘black swan events’. Analysts used to call them the ‘1 in 100-year events’, except now they feel like they happen every six months.
I survived the property crash of the early 90’s as a property company CEO, the tech crash of 2001 as a tech company CEO and the financial crash in 2008 as the CEO of both an investment bank and an asset management firm, all before my 38th birthday. Every one of those felt like the end of the world at the time. In 2008, I promise you, as someone who was in and out of the UK Treasury during that period, it very nearly was.
Of course, your reaction could well be, “You are seriously unlucky – what’s your next gig? I want to know what to avoid.” Then along came 2020 and an indiscriminate virus in Covid-19. For so many it quickly changed everything. For others, you may not see it yet, but it’s changed everything for you too. This type of thing does. For some companies this is the beginning of the end, for others it’s the end of the beginning and, as leaders, you’re going to need the wisdom to tell the difference.
I have been guilty of vocalising to my stakeholders and shareholders just how difficult this has been, with lockdowns (that’s a given), but also in getting them to understand that, even in the absence of a lockdown, our numbers won’t bounce back to pre-Covid levels overnight. They have to be patient as we – and here’s the interesting part – as we what? Are you waiting for people to start behaving normally? (That’s the high-water rising strategy of doing nothing and waiting for the world to right itself. Don’t knock it, in 2008 many banks deployed exactly that strategy.) Or waiting until you see the results from your innovations, pivots and outright gambles pay off? Which are you?
So, back to a reflective tone. Many careers and futures have been put off course and/or damaged by the pandemic. Too many jobs have been lost and we know there are more to come. It’s time to do something philosophical. It’s time to look at what the pandemic has given you as a person and not what it has taken away.
It’s contrarian I know, but careers are usually a combination of people, opportunity and preparedness. Working from home? Overrated. Office of National Statistics surveys show 88% of companies reported no improvement or much less productivity from this lockdown phenomenon. In June 2020 BUPA released a survey saying 80% of people believed working from home had a negative effect on their mental health.
I am not glossing over the bad here but the point often isn’t about where you work from, it’s about how you’re working. People who helm businesses are paid and trained to lead and that does not exclude pandemics. The pandemic has forced many of us to do more for less and better. To innovate, to get the same things done but more efficiently or differently.
Despite my established track record in navigating what were ‘career killer’ periods in time, I have never had to sit down before and think about so many more efficient ways to do the simplest of things in my businesses. Nor have my team. Everyone is thinking about it.
The pandemic has forced me, and many others like me, at the very least to try to be better at our jobs. Every day for nine months, which is not a short period of time to be in crisis mode, we have had to rise to each new day thinking about how to deal with a new development in our business we just never thought we would see – be this a drop in sales, the closure of offices and stores or the extreme pressure on our digital arms. In this unfolding situation, everyone has their own story.
For the first few weeks it was exhausting, but as some other seemingly philosophical bloke once said, ‘a man in pain can always take more pain’. After a while, challenging everything became the norm. Of course, not every sector is directly suffering but, even for those who are not, I wouldn’t get too complacent. As leaders of businesses and entrepreneurs, embrace the desire for change and risk. If you really can’t think of any way you can improve your company, its offering, delivery or cost base then look again. Because very few things are perfect.
The pandemic has taken a lot, but it has given too. It’s up to each of us as individuals to determine where the scales finally settle between loss and gain over the coming months. And, as we look towards the vaccine roll out, keep in mind there is still time to redress an imbalance if you feel the pandemic has still been a ‘net taker’.
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