Opinion: Embrace Uncertainty

Joan McGuire

The COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to build a stronger business.

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These are difficult times. Communities across the country are dealing with a once-in-a-century pandemic, with no clear resolution in sight. Our politics are both stubbornly and increasingly divided. And as a society, we are engaged in long-overdue conversations about systemic racism and discrimination.

The result is a significant amount of uncertainty that has the potential to impact decision-making.

For many leaders, uncertainty can feel scary. It is often difficult to think long term, choosing instead a path of muddling through each day or merely surviving the next. There is the tendency to focus solely on the short-term business-survival needs, without thoughtful attention to creating the future on purpose, rather than ending up there by accident.

The situation can also feel isolating, particularly when we take on the responsibility of colleagues’ well-being and the success of the organization without seeking the help or guidance of others.

Isolation often gives way to stubborn self-reliance and decision-making that are not informed by the collective strength and wisdom that comes from a more collaborative approach.

It does not have to be this way. Visionary leaders strive to strike a balance in how they approach problem-solving. They take steps to manage the immediate needs of their business while keeping an eye on the future and imagining what is possible.

The most effective leaders know that, in order to maintain this critical balance, they need to seek the help of others and leverage the expertise of their team.

As you take steps to lead your organization forward, consider these important steps:

Times of crisis or uncertainty do not last forever, particularly as it relates to an economic downturn. When the economy eventually does start to recover, there will likely be long-term adjustments to the programs, products or services your organization offers, and the methods customers use to purchase or acquire.

As the old adage goes: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” In March 2008, during the height of the Great Recession, then American Express CEO Ken Chennault said, “A difficult economic environment argues for the need to innovate more, not to pull back.” Constraints enable innovation.

As a leader, ask yourself the following key questions:

• Is there an opportunity to realign, refocus or refresh my company’s brand or value proposition?

• Are there additional capabilities or infrastructure updates that a slow period will enable and help set the stage for post-crisis growth?

• Are there important shifts in our operating environment that I know are coming but haven’t taken the time to plan for?

In the long term, organizations can exit a time of uncertainty or crisis in a better, more competitive place. Now is the time to spend as much time thinking about your organization’s long-term opportunities as you do its immediate needs.

No leader sets out to create a brittle organization — one that snaps under pressure. But there is in fact a lot we can do to ensure our business is prepared with the agility it needs to weather any crisis it encounters.

We can face reality by ensuring we have a team that will tell us the truth by building the systems and processes to encourage collaboration and idea sharing. We can find meaning through greater focus on our organization’s values. And we can improvise more by building a diverse team capable of engaging in spirited debate.

The foundation for a collaborative, team-oriented culture starts at the top. Modeling resiliency starts with leadership. Now is the time to ask yourself:

• Am I seeking out information from people who think differently than I do?

• Have I created a safe space and an opportunity to ask questions or express new ideas?

• Have I created an environment in which my team can feel both valued and part of the solution?

• Can I admit openly when I don’t have the experience for a particular situation?

• Do I ask my team for help?

You can build a more resilient and engaged team by creating a culture of collaboration and collective reliance. A leader needs to trust their team and be willing to ask for help. Doing so will lead to better, more informed decisions and, ultimately, a future that all team members are inspired and energized to move toward.

Chris Harder is a principal at Coraggio Group, a Portland-based management consulting firm specializing in strategy, change management, leadership and culture, and process improvement. He is the past agency director of Business Oregon, the state’s economic development agency.

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