There are moments in a business that are full of uncertainty. Sometimes you thrust that uncertainty onto yourself— for example, when you start a new business or try to create a new product. Sometimes that uncertainty is thrust upon you, like it is now during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the co-founder and CEO of Container Solutions, I have seen a lot of uncertainty and I have learnt a few things along the way. The first is that crises are often not crises at all, but rather the ending of an illusion or a fantasy. This is important to keep in mind.
The second is that the path through uncertainty is plotted by people who are good at strategy. However, strategy, the word, has been so overused as to render it almost meaningless. This means it's hard to know where to start. That's why in this blog post, we’ll look at strategy in terms of capabilities, focusing on three specific ones.
Finally, when a crisis meets a team that knows how to reflect, epic learnings occur. Some of these learnings come in real time. Some arrive later. This means that, even though they are painful, crises and how we come through them are excellent teachers. We must not forget this—even though, as self-pity knocks on the door, this is the easiest thing to forget.
It is my hope that, by sharing my reflections here, I can help you, the reader, to realise that even in very dark times there are reasons to be hopeful. And in fact, and maybe counterintuitively, hope and optimism are two of the tools that can help you the most.
The capabilities an effective leader has can be broken into categories. These include things like organisational skills, personal excellence, communication skills, attention to results, and strategy. Strategy is by far the hardest skill for most executives to get their heads around. It doesn't lend itself to playbooks, nor can it be fully taught in a classroom.
Strategy is about using creativity to prosper from uncertainty. The best way to practice it, then, is during times of uncertainty. This is why the COVID-19 crisis will reveal previously hidden strategists whilst woefully exposing many executives’ lack of strategic skills.
Specifically, the three skills that we will get to practice during the COVID crisis are:
Let’s take each one in turn and, whilst we’re at it, take a look at what we expect from leaders and emerging leaders here at Container Solutions.
Emerging leaders at Container Solutions are expected to be able to deal with ambiguity, to be able to shift their priorities based on emerging information. Experienced leaders, however, go far beyond dealing with ambiguity. They instead thrive in it, spot underlying patterns and structures, and guide their people (and community) through the unfolding situation.
It is exactly this skill that leads to the most exciting business models. For example, everyone knows that we have an aging demographic, and therefore everyone can build a business around it. But only really creative people see patterns that nobody else sees, yet. Acting on such insight is how you create something unique.
The COVID-19 crisis will let us practice this crucial skill. In fact, for many, the existential nature of the threat that COVID poses is likely to lead to creative desperation; people will find a creative side they never realised they had or did not have time to explore.
Leaders are required to use a variety of tools to make decisions. These range from using analysis to applying lessons from experience. Leaders with this capability will make effective decisions during moments of intense pressure and extreme uncertainty. These decisions will have positive and far reaching effects for both the organisation and the community it belongs to.
COVID will impel emerging leaders to make decisions under pressure. COVID is certainly stretching the limits of all of us at Container Solutions. We are using analytical tools, such as scenario analysis, whilst letting experience speak to us through our system one/emotional brain. We are also rapidly testing and learning, prodding the system in the hope it will speak back to us. Right now, none of us have the luxury of being able to gather full information before deciding.
Over on Microsoft’s education competency site, which is a great resource, they talk about experienced leaders and how they ‘learn on the fly’. They say the leader,
Can be consistently counted on to successfully handle unfamiliar, tense, or crisis situations. [The leader] readily learns and transfers conceptual knowledge to action in those situations.
It’s because we want to think on our feet, that when we face challenges at Container Solutions, we hit the books: We read, absorb and apply. This is a habit nearly all of my team have.
Let me give an example: I remember once having to negotiate an agreement, and not having a clue where to start. There were dirty tricks involved, which ranged from name calling to playing dumb. I figured I was in trouble but thought, well, the best I can do is learn. I ended up buying and studying books about human nature, interrogation techniques, negotiation, and even books about the American presidents.
The trick to thinking on your feet is the real-time integration of your readings and learnings into your emerging strategy. This is what I did in that negotiation and, in fact, do on a daily basis as the CEO of Container Solutions.
Thinking on your feet like this means you massively stack the odds of success in your favour. Then, no matter what happens, you are left with epic, real-world experiences. When you have that, failure or success hardly matters.
Now, I know what you’re wondering: Did we win that negotiation? We didn’t win but we didn’t get battered, either. What we did pick up, though, was an amazing set of negotiation skills, that included commitment tactics, keeping the other party talking, building rapport with people we didn’t like and, of course, diplomacy, which is a skill I personally use every day. The conflict is now a distant memory, but the lessons remain.
COVID will give people a chance to practice thinking on their feet. Hit the books, call your friends, and integrate your new insights in real time. By doing so, you’ll learn tons. Soon, your skills and new organisational capabilities will be real and, although we will never forget what we have all collectively experienced through this crisis, we will adapt, move on and make new plans based on our new skills.
A few years ago, two weeks after I moved to London from Amsterdam to expand Container Solutions, our biggest customer cancelled their project with us. The profit from that project was meant to fuel our global expansion.
This sent us into an 18-month tailspin. I fought with Pini, CS’s other founder. Andrea and I were relegated from a new office into our spare bedroom—which, funnily enough, is where I am writing this now.
I spent every day trying to sell things. I developed a headache that lasted for nine months. It was an excruciatingly difficult time for our company and for me personally.
What we realised later, however, was that we did not have a crisis. It would have been too easy to label it a crisis. No, it was something else. We had been labouring under an illusion. The trip to London simply ended this illusion. Our business was full of risk. Our ability to think on our feet wasn’t developed enough. We hadn’t done the tenacious work of building our sales pipeline. We had not used every tool at our disposal in our decision making.
However, from the rubble of that year we discovered what we were good at and what we were bad at. We kept the good. We threw away the bad.
In that sense, the COVID-19 crisis will do us all a massive favour. It will help all of us leaders and business owners see through our illusions, leaving us weaker, wiser, but also more connected to reality and with a clear view on the task at hand.
We have to hope, too, that society’s illusions will end. Teachers and nurses are vital to sustaining the society we take so much for granted. Remote work is more humane. When we share our bounty, we all win. We are reciprocal, compassionate animals. We are not self-centred and grasping. The illusions have to end.
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