By Garrett Sheridan

If nothing else, recent events have shuffled and added pages to our management dictionary.  Words like “quarantine” and “curve-bending” and “social distancing” and “Zoom” have come into our lexicon, and we’re using terms like “shock,” “unprecedented,” “existential” and “impending recession” more often than we’d imagined.

The jumbling of our language mirrors a fundamental change in our leadership priorities and dynamics.  We are accustomed to preventing the urgent from crowding out the important, but how does that work when “existential” mixes in?  Safety has always been a priority, but what about when the safety of employees and the safety of the enterprise itself come into acute conflict?  How do we manage tough decisions in light of near-term pressures, but with an eye toward a “new normal”— a “new normal” if we don’t know when it will arrive or what it will look like?

Somehow, this is different than our already complex and accelerating world.  Leaders we talk with are scrambling—rising to the occasion to be sure—but the usual management disciplines have become a cloud of confusion.  Suddenly, our traditional ways of balancing priorities don’t seem to be working.  This moment has presented a series of critical questions requiring immediate answers, and a necessity — or opportunity — for leaders to simultaneously address today’s pressing concerns and tomorrow’s business mandates.

Some are taking a unified, balanced approach to leading during this period by employing a focused method to ensure their decisions are SAFE, SMART, and STRONG.

The priorities here are phased, but not completely sequential: secure the Safety of the people, customers and business first, but keep an eye on making Smart decisions to navigate through.  Being Smart in crafting solutions and adaptations is a critical priority, but those decisions can also serve your capacity to come out of the crisis Strong.

To be clear, these concerns have long been leadership priorities, but through the lens of the current crisis they have dramatically increased in focus and priority.

1 – Focus on SAFE: the immediate response to disruption.

Expectedly, recent events have required an immediate response related to ensuring the safety of the employees and business continuity:

  • How can we keep our employees safe?
  • Do we have a response team we trust to lead us through this?
  • How can we demonstrate our company’s values through both what we communicate and how we communicate it?
  • What can we do to stay in touch with our customers and understand and support their well-being as well as our relationship?

These questions highlight the importance of staying true to company values and employing transparency in how we handle relationships with employees, suppliers, and customers. Leaders can avoid contributing to an environment of anxiety and panic by openly discussing actions and decisions taken.

2 – Agility and resiliency: a SMART response and future foundation.

Post the initial “shock” phase, necessary preservation actions have come into focus. Not surprisingly, leaders who have successfully navigated the SAFE phase have begun making plans to ensure short-term business survival and, at the same time, protect future security.

Next on leaders’ minds should be the following:

  • How do we communicate the actions we need to take and how do we motivate the team after these actions are taken?
  • How can we discuss our decisions and actions with the team, given limited clarity about the future and potential need for future action?
  • What parts of the organization can we flex in response to turbulence or opportunities? Are we agile enough to do so?
  • Do we know which of our capabilities are most strategic and will create the greatest value (and which must be protected at all costs)?

While such an organizational self-analysis may seem a luxury during volatile “survival” mode, leaders must take the time to identify and preserve key building blocks fundamental to the success of rebuilding their businesses in the medium-term, new normal. Playing it safe in a way that damages the organization’s core capabilities is not the way to go.

3 – Rethink and reshape: build a STRONG post-crisis future.

Lastly, once the safety of the team is determined and the actions for immediate company survival have been agreed upon and taken, leaders will shift their attention toward post-crisis reconstruction.

A common theme found in leaders’ post-crisis agendas includes the need to evaluate current weaknesses and their companies’ susceptibilities to potentially unforeseen future disruptions. One interesting common element was that leaders naturally “broadened” the problem, thinking, for example, beyond healthcare disruptions to considerations of other potential issues such as cyberattacks, foreign wars, terrorism, civil unrest, and ever-evolving digital changes. Some of the questions that emerged were:

  • Is our supply chain robust, overly concentrated with too few suppliers or geographies, or unnecessarily fragmented?
  • Do I have single points of failure in my organization?
  • What types of innovation would undermine our value proposition and put us at risk of losing customers?
  • If we had a “do-over” on our strategy and were unencumbered by our current assets and locations, what would we do?
  • Are there ways to challenge how we deliver our products, services or solutions in fundamental ways that would make our business more “Shockproof”?

These questions seem to lead into a trade-off between cost control (cost optimization) and building redundancies, where needed, to increase resiliency.

In conclusion, a consistent sentiment we continue to hear about from leaders regarding the near-future economic outlook is that no one knows what may come next or when – fair enough given the unparalleled dimensions of the current situation. But leaders must take this time to focus on stabilizing their teams and businesses while preparing for a robust next chapter. History tells us crises will return, and leaders who employ the SAFE, SMART and STRONG paradigm of answering critical questions now will not only ensure they successfully navigate the current, unorthodox moment but are resiliently positioned for the brave new normal ahead.

Garrett Sheridan, President, Axiom Consulting Partners

To learn more about building a SAFE, SMART and STRONG organization that will prepare you for what’s coming next, let’s chat.



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