The most vital skills for leaders in a post-Covid-19 world

Resilience, empathy, cultural intelligence, and communication. The pandemic gives us an opportunity to reassess the qualities we value most in our managers and leaders, says Louvain School of Management’s Marie-Therese Claes, in presenting new research from CEMS

A global survey of more than 1,700 professionals, carried out by CEMS – the Global Alliance in Management Education, has revealed a shift in the qualities required of managers of global teams in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the past, the traditional ‘leader-centred’ approach was something concrete – a collection of skills to be taught and learned. Leaders were judged on strategy and the bottom line. However, although strategic vision was ranked as the most important leadership quality both pre-and post-crisis in the research, it declined in importance by six percentage points. Having a results focus also dropped in importance pre-and post-crisis, by nine percentage points.

This decline makes sense. Results-focused leaders are driven by achievement and end goals. Strategic vision indicates ideas for the direction and activities of business development. Both are still important, but both centre on plans. As one CEO said to me: ‘I could leave our strategic plan on the plane, nobody could imitate what we do.’ In a time when planning has become nearly impossible It is not ‘what’ that counts, but ‘how’.

The CEMS research found that fluid human skills are key to making sure global teams thrive during times of disruption. Four of these skills are detailed below:

1. Resilience

The number of respondents who thought resilience was an important attribute almost tripled since the pandemic started.

Resilience is the unflustered ability to do what needs to be done in any given situation, no matter how challenging or unexpected. Over the coming months, things will often not go as planned – we will face severe difficulties, failures, deadends. Still, we need to move on, pick ourselves up and start again. As conditions are changing, leaders need to be flexible and adapt. These efforts are not useless: even if we don’t see the result now, many accomplishments throughout history have been the result of initial failures and conflicting demands.

2. Empathy

Leaders require empathy to feel and understand the changing climate, both inside and outside organisations. Inside organisations, uncertainties can undermine morale and engagement in the team. Outside organisations, leaders have to keep their fingers on the pulse of the world in a more intense way than before the pandemic.

Employees may be faced with many more worries than ever – job security, finances, health, balancing working from home with family life and managing competing demands. Our teams are international – distributed worldwide, but now living in very locally defined and restricted regions. They need more one-to-one support. All of this means that leaders must listen more and listen better, to understand, not just to hear, and respond with empathy and heart.

3. Cultural intelligence

More than ever, leaders face contradictory challenges such as ‘managing for today and managing for tomorrow at the same time’. Life has become more ‘local’, as we cannot travel and meet the way we used to, but at the same time it is essential to keep the global picture and mindset.

Not being able to travel and meet face-to-face means greater cultural intelligence is required, as we have less information available (no facial expressions and no informal chats full of indirect messages, for example). US author, F Scott Fitzgerald wrote in 1936 that: ‘intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.’

Likewise, cultural intelligence entails paradoxical thinking – a ‘both-and’ mindset. The question is not ‘shall I do A’ or ‘shall I do B?’ But rather: ‘how can I combine both A and B?’. In other words, acquiring a helicopter view of the world, while being wide open to new ways and possibilities. In particular, the diversity we have in our global teams is a source of different perspectives and meanings, which can unlock innovation.

4. Ability to communicate

Many respondents believe that they will communicate more often with international colleagues over the coming months due to the shift to virtual. Of course, this is not without its dangers. Misjudged or inappropriate communication, particularly from leaders via digital platforms (where it is not always easy to read intentions), can be misconstrued, causing long-term damage to the quality of relationships. Conversely, effective global communication drives engagement and productivity.

In their communications during this time of unprecedented crisis, leaders must make sure that every employee feels valued and included in the organisation: that their contribution is important, concerns heard and that they understand the conditions in which they are expected to work. Flippant or hasty email communications should be avoided, and extra effort needs to be made to communicate individually with every employee on a regular basis, regardless of location.

Embrace the qualities we value most

The coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally disrupted ‘business as usual’ for many organisations. However, as this research shows, it has also presented an opportunity to reassess the qualities we value most.

In order to survive in this increasingly unpredictable, complex and changing environment, organisations and leaders need to be able to emerge as resilient, empathetic, and culturally intelligent communicators.

Marie-Therese Claes is a Professor of Cross-Cultural Management at Louvain School of Management, Belgium. She teaches on the CEMS Master in International Management and is part of the Global Leadership Faculty Group.

The power of purpose: fuelling employees’ motivation

An account of how a walk into the unknown and the plight of late 19th-century farmers in the southern Netherlands provided a powerful means of injecting purpose into employees of Rabobank, from the book Alive at Work  

At some point, we’ve all felt underwhelmed by what we do at work – bored and creatively bankrupt. In these moments, we’ve lost our zest for our jobs and accepted working as a sort of long commute to the weekend. Yet even though we’ve all been there, it can be frustrating when our people aren’t living up to their potential. It’s exasperating when employees are disengaged and don’t seem to view their work as meaningful. It can be hard to remember that employees don’t usually succumb to these negative responses for a lack of trying. They want to feel motivated. They seek meaning from their jobs.

But their organisations are letting them down. We can do a much better job at maintaining their engagement with their work. But first, we need to understand that employees’ lack of engagement isn’t really a motivational problem. It’s a biological one. Here’s the thing: many organisations are deactivating the part of employees’ brains called the ‘seeking systems’. Our seeking systems create the natural impulse to explore our worlds, learn about our environments, and extract meaning from our circumstances. When we follow the urges of our seeking systems, they release dopamine – a neurotransmitter linked to motivation and pleasure – that makes us want to explore more.

With small but consequential nudges and interventions from leaders, it’s possible to activate employees’ seeking systems by encouraging them to play to their strengths, experiment, and feel a sense of purpose.

The power of purpose

One of the triggers that activates the seeking system is purpose. Purpose is energising. It lights up our systems and gives us that jolt of dopamine. But because purpose is personal and emotional, it is difficult for leaders to instill it in others. It’s one thing to read about something in a business book and another to put it into practice. So how do we create the feeling of purpose and make sure it lasts? To have a shot at success, you need to help employees witness their impact on others, as the case of Rick Garrelfs shows.

Rick, who was a leader at Rabobank for 18 years, told me about an experience he developed to help high-potential employees understand the meaning of their work. Working with a consulting organisation, Garrelfs and his team told the 60 employees: ‘At 5am, be at Eindhoven [a city in the northern part of the Netherlands] Central station.’ They did not divulge any further information to the participants, which naturally caused some curiosity and concerns. Some of the people called and protested: ‘But the trains are not running at 5am’ or ‘I live far away, so I will need a hotel.’ The team responded to these concerns by saying: ‘Yes, that is correct’ to retain the mystery.

People started arriving at the station from 4:30am, and the team made sure the café was open and coffee and rolls were available. Around 5:15am, Garrelfs started walking from the station (the group followed naturally at that point) into a waiting coach, which took them on a 30-minute drive into the dark, away from town. The bus stopped, the group exited and started walking into the fields, with Garrelfs in front with a light, and someone from the consulting firm with a light at the rear.

After 30 minutes, they arrived at a line of trees, where they saw a man standing with a candle. As the group gathered around him, still in the dark of early morning, the man started to speak about the situation of farmers in the late 19th century in the southern Netherlands. He spoke about the farmers’ daily problems, their poverty, and the harshness of their existence. He described how the Dutch priest, Pater Gerlacus van den Elsen, used his local influence to bring farmers together, so that those that had some money could lend it to those that didn’t for investment.

As the man spoke, the sun slowly started to light the scene – the landscape and the group of people – and the group recognised the speaker. He was Bert Mertens, Senior Executive of Cooperative Affairs and Governance of Rabobank, and a direct report to the executive board. Bert was seen as the ‘conscience’ of cooperative thinking in the bank. His core message: Rabobank emerged from the misery of farmers, and we should never forget that.

Bert then walked the group across the farm fields, to a house where they were served breakfast by the farmers, who were long-time members of Rabobank. The farmers talked about the life of farming now, the difficulty of keeping a medium-sized farm alive, and what they did to make ends meet.

Although this had only been the start of the first day of a programme, years later the participants picked out this particular moment as perhaps the most important experience for them in terms of understanding the meaning of Rabobank.

Changing the way employees think and feel about their work

It is one thing for a leader to talk in a meeting about the mission of connecting banking to agriculture. This can be logical and strategic, and a leader can even put pictures of farms on the PowerPoint deck. It is another thing to have a personal experience: to walk in the fields, to connect with nature in the early morning, to eat and talk with the farmers who you serve as a bank.

Imagine how this firsthand experience could change employees’ stories about why they do what they do, and how it might help newcomers fashion their own purpose story. This sense of purpose could help employees make decisions that align with Rabobank’s purpose, but also help them see their work as something worth doing.

This is the power of purpose: it activates the seeking system and makes life feel better. When we understand the powerful humanistic results of purpose – not to mention the economic benefits of building purpose into businesses – then our quest as leaders changes. Our mission moves from ‘how can I make this job more efficient, predictable, and controlled?’ to ‘how can I give my team firsthand experiences that allow them to personalise the meaning of their work?’ This is a powerful new way to think about employment – as a chance to light up employees’ seeking systems instead of shutting them down.

This is an edited excerpt from Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do by Dan Cable (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018).

Why should anyone be led by you? Know yourself and show yourself

Leadership begins with you – and you will not succeed as a leader unless you have some sense of who you are. Your colleagues – potential followers – have a simple but basic need: they want to be led by a person, not by a corporate apparatchik, say Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones

It is unlikely that you will be able to inspire, arouse, excite, or motivate people unless you can show them who you are, what you stand for, and what you can and cannot do.

To be yourself, you must know yourself and show yourself— enough. Put another way, you must be sufficiently self-aware and also prepared to self-declare.

Comfort with origins is one aspect of people who combine self-awareness with the ability to disclose. Whatever the complexities of the cultural variation, we have been consistently struck by the ways in which effective leaders can articulate the relationship between where they came from and who they are.

For example, Patti Cazzato, a senior executive working with retailing giant Gap at the time we met, is from rural Kansas. In her job she has to deal with sophisticated, urban New York designers. Patti told us that when she began these working relationships, she felt slightly overawed by the encounters—as if she were still wearing Kansas dust on her clothes. She felt gauche and inhibited among her new colleagues. It took a trip back to her roots for her to rediscover herself and bring her own authenticity back into her leadership: to be herself in the new context.

As individuals move through life, they experience mobility—social and geographical, within and between organizations, across and up and down hierarchies. And this experience of mobility can disrupt an individual’s sense of self.

Our observation of effective leaders is that as well as being comfortable with their origins, they are also at ease with mobility. They take themselves with them to new contexts. They adapt, of course, but they retain their authenticity in the new situation.

If comfort with origins and ease with mobility help with authenticity, how can aspiring leaders grow these capabilities? What follows is a list of pragmatic suggestions.

Seek out new experiences and new contexts

This can involve changes as small as seeking to lead outside your function or as large as seeking to lead in an entirely different context. We interviewed a tough CFO who worked in a drug rehab unit on a one-month sabbatical. He reported that it forced him to reexamine his own leadership behaviours and to reconnect with his fundamental values. One critical characteristic here is that his hierarchical position as CFO meant nothing in the new context. There was just him and those he sought to lead and help. A corollary of this is that to develop self-knowledge, you should avoid comfort zones and routines. Developing self-knowledge requires active experimentation. Routines, in and of themselves, inhibit this experimentation drive.

Get honest feedback

Effective leaders seek out sources of straight feedback. We have had very good results from carefully collected workplace feedback (including 360degree feedback). But there is also a role for coaches who can give an external perspective. But perhaps the best feedback comes from honest colleagues and those who know us best: our family and friends.

Explore biography

Many of the leaders we have both interviewed and observed have had a deep and intimate knowledge of the contexts that made them what they are. Explore these; talk to others who may share the same experiences. Self-knowledge grows from coming to terms with the events that make us what we are.

Return to roots

Patti Cazzato’s trip back to Texas reinforced the sense of self. Spend time with people who know you without the trappings of organizational power.

Find a third place.

The American writer Ray Oldenburg has put forward the convincing argument that after work and family, we all need a third place: somewhere we can make associations and develop a sense of self, freed from the obligations of work and family roles.

Not all of these will work for everyone; try to find techniques that help you. But if you cannot develop a refined awareness of what works for you, then your abilities as a leader will be limited. After all, knowing yourself, being yourself, and disclosing yourself are vital ingredients of effective leadership.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?: What It Takes to be an Authentic Leader by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones.

Rob Goffee is Professor of Organizational Behaviour at London Business School

Gareth Jones has alternated between academic and corporate roles, teaching at LBS too, and also the University of East Anglia, Henley, INSEAD, and currently, IE Business School, in Madrid. He has held senior HR roles at Polygram and the BBC.

Future-proofing your organisation: developing well-rounded leaders

Many organisations have created a talent base that is skilled in a narrow area of expertise, but not prepared for upper management

In a 2017 post for AMBITION, Juliette Alban-Metcalfe talks about developing a learning culture in organisations, stating: ‘We can’t afford to maintain the silos we’ve built up and ignored for years.’ In this statement, she challenges us as learning and development professionals to address a very important issue, developing well-rounded leaders.

For years, we have helped people develop expertise around specific jobs. However, the need to expand the knowledge, skills, and abilities of our future leaders is often neglected. We’ve created a talent base that is skilled in a narrow area of expertise, but not prepared for upper management.

It is said that by 2030, baby boomers will be completely out of the workforce. So we, as L&D departments and professionals, need quickly to rectify the silos of specialists we’ve created by broadening the role-specific training of the past in order to address the workforce needs of the future. 

Our challenge is to develop a new generation of company leaders capable of making well-rounded and well-informed decisions. So what types of things should we be helping employees to learn, and how?

Many employees don’t know the strategy of their organisation. They are so focused on their individual job that they miss the big picture.

Competitor knowledge is something we’ve seen particularly lacking. People get caught short in being able to ‘sell’ their products and services as the best choice in comparison to their competitors. In an ideal world, all employees would understand their company mission, vision, strategy, and competitive advantage.

Few individuals understand their company’s business model, and how it makes money. Understanding how the company makes money helps individuals make better decisions regarding expenditure, negotiations, investments, and more. 

Continuous improvement is a concept that every individual should embrace. There is always a better way to do something and each individual should be responsible for ensuring that their job is done in the most logical, efficient and ethical manner. Continuous improvement helps a company make incremental improvements over time, and achieve ‘breakthrough’ improvements.

A stakeholder is someone with a positon on a topic, so they can be anyone. Knowing who the stakeholders are helps employees to ‘see the big picture’ and make better decisions.

The next question is: ‘How do we help employees acquire this kind of knowledge and skill?’ Knowing and doing are different things. Also, learning opportunities need to be structured to ensure real-world, on the job experiences.  

One idea that is rarely used is job rotation. Anyone who aspires to lead in an organisation should work in at least three different areas of the business. 

Unfortunately, most companies reserve their rotational programmes for ‘high potentials’. A better approach would be to create an immersion programme for all employees, so that everyone has a more rounded view of the organisation. This will help in retention as well as educating employees about their role.

Most people leave an organisation because they feel there is no growth or advancement for them. But what if they were able to identify their own future role? Participating in a rotational programme could inspire them to contribute to the organisation in many ways.

Organisations must focus on developing well-rounded individuals who can take the organisation into the future. The future success of our companies depends on it. 

Nanette Miner is the Founder and Managing Consultant for The Training Doctor, LLC, a learning design firm.

Why old business paradigms no longer work

The way we do business is changing. As a result, that the old paradigm of ‘win-lose’ is dying out, and anyone still operating in this way looks set to become obsolete. 

Our ability to survive this shift depends on our skill at adapting to the environment – the basis of Evolutionary Theory. 

Survival of the fittest is not about being the strongest, biggest or fastest, but it is about what is the best ‘fit’ for the environment. When the environment changes, the fittest adapt, they are the survivors. 

You might think that if a company isn’t in the business of creating something that can be digitalised, they don’t need to worry. You’d be wrong. In the cultural evolution of our time, organisations need to be aware of the changes so they don’t disappear.

Every era of humanity has cultural shifts where the mass population decides that something previously ignored is no longer acceptable, such as the trafficking of slaves. As we advance as a society, the overlooked become something the majority of the developed world disapproves of. 

Now, the vast accumulation of wealth, without consideration for others, is on the list of activities that are no longer acceptable.

The next phase of humanity is about being decent. It’s about knowing we are consistently doing right by other people – and ourselves. If you think this is just limited to political opinions and parenting, think again. 

The businesses who fail to acknowledge this shift, from win-lose to win-win, will fail to survive and those that are among the first, will thrive. It’s about clearly demonstrating your commitment to being a force for good – in your company, your community, and on your planet. That in itself is a beautiful opportunity, where you can create a lot more than monetary wealth, get to raise kids who aren’t embarrassed by your unethical policies, are proud of what you do, and don’t have to be begged to visit your deathbed to hear your dying regrets.  

This is why you have to pass all your decisions through the win-win filter.

It has to be from the inside-out, because the way you treat your employees, your investors, your customers, and the planet, is increasingly related to your profitability.

At the very centre of a true win-win is honesty, absolute transparency, and open communication. Those who can approach business with honesty in order to create genuine win / win outcomes, are the fittest, and they will survive. Applying this outlook to every situation may take some time at first, but it gets easier with practice – and it will ensure that your decisions are future friendly, and allow you to shift smoothly into this new paradigm of business.

Michelle Lowbridge is an author of numerous books, and a business owner.

Comfortably numb: the peril of a plateau

A plateau in business is really an invisible state of decline, unwittingly fuelled by those at the top. Leading out of it involves innovation, transparency, values-led decisions and sustainability, argue Khurshed Dehnugara and Claire Genkai Breeze

‘Hello… Is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me. Is there anyone at home?’

Does the above quote from Pink Floyd’s hit Comfortably Numb ever resonate with you and your workplace?

We have defined this comfortable numbness as a ‘plateau’: when a business or economy reaches a certain point in its growth trajectory and, while not failing, has become stagnant. 

Putting this into the context of a natural metaphor, a stagnant pond cannot support life; it is dying, poisoned, unhealthy and toxic. In short, both metaphorically and literally, the plateauing, stagnant organisation could be toxic as well. 

Crisis versus plateau
Companies, operating in the volatile ‘new normal’ of the business world will face crises, opportunity, highs and lows. Threat is a now a constant reality and, as a result, businesses are becoming increasingly proficient at managing through crises. 

In the short term, at least, crises can generate positive opportunities. 

They bring a degree of drama which energises the leadership population  and galvanises entire workforces into action. This crisis mentality can engage teams and spur their inner heroes, mobilising them into fight-or-flight mode, where the adrenaline is pumping and making them feel good about themselves. This often leads to great results. For the short term.

For most businesses today, however, there are the plateaus; businesses are failing to achieve growth. Many of these organisations remain in this state, with their only response being to keep generating modest profits through cutting costs; for instance, achieving a 0% sales growth but 2% or 3% profit growth each year, which keeps the city happy and the board and the all-important shareholders satisfied. There is no profit warning, so no real problem, right? Wrong. 

This cost-cutting phenomenon is nothing more than a metaphorical anaesthetic, numbing the pain, dulling the ache, keeping the proverbial wolves from the door – but it is lobotomising the business of the innovation, creativity or passion it desperately needs.

Its people – and leaders – are internally dissatisfied; they see no way through this fog. They are comfortably numb.

This is a financial plateau. Often underneath this is a cultural plateau – in which employees are bumbling along in silos, disengaged and counting the minutes until home time. There may also be a leadership plateau – an habitual state of not focusing attention on real change and, quite simply, not feeling the need to.

Plateaus produce a compelling, but largely unconscious, dominant logic in the minds of leaders as well as employees. This creates a perceived safety zone between the pendulum swing of modest profits and cost cutting. 

However, beneath the financial plateau is a plateau of the imagination. 

In this instance, people in the organisation cease to be able to imagine another way of doing things, or a place of business where purpose, boldness, creativity and innovation lie at the core of the culture and are not the exception. 

The cultural and leadership plateaus that cause, and result from, this failure of imagination are a threat to vitality, invention and wellbeing. They create a workforce of comfort seekers and cynics; they create an illusion of activity when really the business
is engaged in a sophisticated game of killing time. 

Killing time for what? Killing time until employees can reach the top of the organisation, pay their mortgages, achieve promotion or just pluck up the courage to leave their job and focus on something that would genuinely engage them. If these feel like strong and unpalatable statements, they need to be. A plateau is really a decline.

The trouble with crises
It is easier to strategise around a crisis than a plateau because there is a consolidated and absolute focus on getting a problem sorted. A crisis is often more about recovering after a difficulty rather than maintaining or sustaining growth.

A case in point is Samsung. In October 2016, just weeks after launching its flagship smartphone, the Galaxy Note 7, the company had to recall more than three million devices after reports of overheating and exploding batteries. One clever PR strategy later and some Samsung super fans are still holding on to their Note 7s despite the risk. Given strong customer satisfaction with the product line, plus loyalty to other Samsung products, this customer base looks set to put the Note 7 fiasco behind it quite quickly.

Another example is Volkswagen. According to Harvard Business Review, less than two months after a scandal broke around Volkswagen cars’ high emissions in 2015, German consumers were already ready to forgive the company and look past its transgressions In a national survey, 65% of respondents believed that Volkswagen still built outstanding cars and that the emissions scandal was overblown. Less than a year later, the company had returned to profitability.

There is strategic merit in distinguishing crisis from plateau. 

During a crisis, businesses experience the behaviour from their people that they would expect all the time: excitement flares up, employees shine, and then, as quickly as it sprang up, this enthusiasm fades away.

Businesses generate a lot of discretionary effort in crises; lots of high-level communications, collective responsibility, increased collaboration, more truth telling, more focus on customer, very high levels of support and a ‘can do’ attitude. 

But some organisations ‘manage by crisis’ all the time due to the misguided belief that this management strategy keeps people mobilised. The tragic reality is that this is neither helpful nor sustainable over the long term. In fact, this type of initiative will run out of potency fast and, if leaders declare a crisis every few months, then the impact of it declines over time.

Boom and bust 
Considering the logic of organisational history, companies in the past would typically move through a cycle of massive change, steady state, then massive change, then steady state. The aim was to get through these waves as efficiently as possible and businesses became experienced at catching up and repairing gaps, to return, eventually, to where they wanted to be. Corporates that were good at change management were celebrated, but change management sometimes equates to nothing more than an illusion to keep people active, productive and focused.

The low-growth environment of the past decade has partly contributed to an acceptance of plateaus in productivity and growth. But a plateau is a long burn; an unseen issue within the business that can be easily disguised. It is a major challenge, but it is insidious because its damage will only be noticed when measured over a long period.

A well-supported decline?
We’re going to throw a spanner into the works here, because after defining the plateau, we want to argue that the plateau doesn’t, in fact, exist. It is an artificial state of mind. 

If the only way business leaders can generate any positive results is through cost cutting, then their business, essentially, is not plateauing. The ‘plateau’ is nothing more than an invisible state of decline – unwittingly fuelled by those at the top. It is an illusion – a cloak of artificial buoyancy that props up a lack of positive activity. 

So, with that in mind, our definition of what has commonly been described as a ‘plateau’ in corporate life is, perhaps more appropriately, ‘a well-supported decline’. 

This decline occurs when organisations stop challenging their limiting assumptions or constraints. They’re creating results through deficit rather than innovation and, in a psychological era of austerity, it’s understandable how this subconsciously unfolds within business.  

The hollowing effect
If businesses continue in this stasis for long enough, they become hollow. 

Their core values, purpose, culture is removed and this often manifests itself through people movement. 

Senior executives typically remain in a role for no more than three or four years; they simply become part of the hollowing mechanism coming to believe ‘cost cutting is what we do here’. 

In large organisations, whole generations of leaders often leave within months of each other, simply because they’re unable to shift or lead the business away from decline. In other words, instead of companies making difficult changes or hard decisions, leaders who don’t make a difference are moved on. 

As a result, these businesses don’t disappear – the cycle merely starts all over again. Leading a business in a state of gradual decline is much harder work than leading a business through a crisis. Some leadership teams are ‘relieved rescuers’ when a crisis comes along, adopting the mentality ‘right we know what we are doing here, let’s roll up our sleeves and get on with it…’

Leading through a crisis
Waking up the organisation up in a crisis is easy – you don’t need to tell people too much about it as they usually already feel the heat from the metaphorical flames. The clichéd burning platform is screaming at you so there little analytical is skill required to diagnose the challenge ahead.  

Crises respond well to the traditional hierarchy of status and power. Leaders want people to act immediately without too much deliberation when a command is given. So, divide up the tasks between the team, project manage, communicate quickly and regularly, and make sure everyone knows where you are up to by establishing crisis management teams for employees outside of their day-to-day work.

The leaders’ role is often to act as a container around the crisis in a bid to stop panic, keep calm and project an in-control image. The brief is to make the difficulty go away, recover and return to order with perceptions of security, as quickly as possible.

Leadership energy during a crisis is characterised by endurance: grit your teeth, get through it even if you have to collapse on the other side. This is one of the reasons that it isn’t a sustainable, long-term strategic choice. 

Leading out of a ‘plateau’
Waking the organisation up to a well-supported decline, a ‘plateau’, is an altogether subtler act. It is an act of observation, looking differently at what is reality rather than what we imagine it or wish it to be. 

This is an act of courage and responsibility; a process of leaders being comfortable with their vulnerability and saying ‘we don’t know’. The diagnosis here is mostly about identifying and surfacing the repeating patterns of behaviour that are keeping the business stuck and circular in its leadership activities. 

Leadership action in a ‘plateau’ has an experimental nature to it: trial and error, probing, testing and learning; finding some data and bringing it back to the table for examination. It involves applying all of the organisation’s efforts to the day-to-day work, and not separating from it through analyses. The day to day is where the insidious patterns exert themselves and where they need to be disturbed.

Authority at this time emerges from how the system organises itself around the leader, how the individual is connected to others and how much they trust in their team, the culture and the corporate vision. This is because new performance needs leaders to disrupt the system and to disturb it first. After this, a leader needs to take a stand to achieve breakthroughs, bearing in mind that this tactic may be received by the establishment as something ridiculous that feels ‘out of sync’ with the way the business is currently tracking. 

Leaders in a plateau display anxiety in a different way to what is needed in the crisis. They put themselves at risk, but at the same time need to create a sense of psychological safety so that others will want to step out and join them on the precipice. They must quickly become experts in dealing with disappointment, loss of hope, resignation, and perhaps most importantly, resisting invitations to return to the past. 

Conclusion
So, in short, do we live in a business world led by people who love a crisis but are so comfortably numb the rest of the time that they embrace a plateau with open arms? 

In terms of energy and ongoing momentum, anything that looks like a straight line on the balance sheet is actually a decline. The flat line causes a decline in energy, expectation, imagination, belief in possibility and desire. Over time (and perhaps unnoticed) all the people with any energy and purpose start to leave. 

Those with more of a personal investment in the organisation will stay until their own needs are met, but ultimately the effect on the overall organisational system is one of intransigence and self-justification. 

Austerity is the fiend that appears to be the friend of growth – when the real solution to leading from plateau to profit is innovation, transparency, values-led decisions and sustainability. 

Retaining leadership energy in a plateau has a different feel to leading through growth or indeed crisis. And, if you’re reading this and you feel comfortable in your business performance, you should ask yourself if this is, in fact, merely a placebo effect of numbness?

Shouldn’t we, as leaders, always be uncomfortable? If not, how can we possibly be agile enough to innovate perpetually? 

Now is the time for leaders to be savvy, strategic and take a sustainable, long-term view. Great plateau leadership will ebb and flow and leaders need to know when to rest and when to up the intensity. 

But the challenge must be moderated by encouraging teams and peers, in order to keep up the momentum – because the cloaked nature of the plateau can make the finishing line seem a long way away. 

Khurshed Dehnugara and Claire Genkai Breeze have been Partners at Relume Ltd. since 2000. Specialists in coaching senior executives to be challengers of the status quo, their clients are listed corporations worldwide. 

They are authors of The Challenger Spirit – Organisations That Disturb The Status Quo (2011) and Flawed but Willing – Leading Large Organisations In The Age of Connection (2014). 

A calling in business

From Sri Lanka to Europe and grocery shop to international corporation, Allirajah Subaskaran, Founder and Chairman of Lycagroup, has remained agile and adaptable, creating an 8,000-strong business with a family feel. Interview by David Woods-Hale

Can you tell us about your career to date, outlining some of your biggest challenges and achievements?

I was born in the town of Mulllaitivu, Sri Lanka, to a working-class family. 

I am from humble origins, having lost my father at a young age and being brought up by a single working mother as a result. During my childhood, Sri Lanka experienced internal conflict caused by a civil war and my hometown was a major conflict zone. My family decided to emigrate in the hope of finding safety and increasing our chances of having a positive future.

In 1989, I followed my brother to Paris and was joined shortly after by my mother and sister. After some time, my family, led by my older brother, opened a restaurant. It was entirely family run and it was soon joined by a grocery shop. We began selling calling cards for people who wanted to phone abroad. Initially, a distributor was providing us with
the calling cards to resell. However, they stopped providing the cards, creating a sudden vacuum. My brother recognised that there was a demand for the product and identified the opportunity for us to distribute the cards ourselves.

As this venture developed, instead of selling cards produced by someone else, we started producing and distributing them ourselves. By 1997, our market had grown from just Paris to a number of countries in Europe, and we found ourselves, led by my brother, travelling from Paris to many European cities.

After marrying in 1999, my wife and I decided to move to London and continue the business; in 2002, I started Lycatel, a telephone calling card company. 

By 2006, with advancements in technology and the emergence of the mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) market thanks to government regulation, there was a void to be filled. This is how Lycamobile came to be.

Due to our price positioning and the global movement of people, the company has been able to expand rapidly and now, 10 years on, we are operating in 21 countries and have become the world’s largest international MVNO and the market leader in international prepaid mobile calls. 

We have also expanded beyond the telecommunications space, launching a range of complementary businesses servicing different market segments, including LycaMedia, LycaHealth, LycaFly and Lycaremit. 

In my younger days, I didn’t have any plans for the future. I always focused on seeking out and seizing the opportunities available to me. This approach has been fundamental to the growth of Lyca Group over the past 10 years and is something I continue to live by now. 

What does your role as Chairman involve?

In the early days, we were very focused on the day-to-day business activities and tried to be spontaneous, seizing every opportunity as it came along. 

Now, while I play a very active role in everyday business activities, my priorities as Chairman involve developing a long-term strategy that will ensure we are delivering the best services to our customers and meeting their ever-changing needs. This involves thinking outside the box and introducing innovative and complementary ideas, as well as looking for big investment and expansion opportunities. 

Part of my role has also been about building a strong team from the ground up throughout the business. I believe in the need to diversify a company’s power base and I know the business would not be where it is today without the work and support of my management team. These individuals play a vital role, overseeing the development of the business as we continue to innovate and grow. 

What has fuelled the growth of Lyca Group over the past 10 years and what are your next steps? 

Lyca certainly looks different now than 10 years ago. Geographical expansion has been a long-term focus and strategy of Lycamobile, in particular as we work towards our goal of reaching 50 million customers by 2020. We are now present in 21 countries around the globe, ensuring we are the largest MVNO by geographical footprint. This means we are able to offer a cost-effective service, and we are constantly innovating to meet the needs of diverse markets, geographically and across sectors and communities.

Some of our recent product launches have seen us breaking into new territories to bring our low-cost calling, messaging and data services to emerging markets such as Tunisia and Macedonia, and we have plans for further expansion into six new countries this year, including Ukraine, Serbia, Russia, South Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe and South-East Asia. The market context in these regions presents numerous challenges that we have continued to tackle through focused innovation and building meaningful relationships with partners.

To meet the needs of a rapidly developing global community, we have also needed to innovate, not only by launching Lycamobile’s services into new territories, but also by expanding our range of services into new business sectors. 

Today, it isn’t enough for families to be able to contact each other; they want to be able to transfer money to each other, watch the same shows, listen to the same music, and share in each other’s everyday lives. It is along these lines that the Lyca Group has evolved. The Lyca Group is now a multi-national corporation delivering low-cost products to more than 15 million customers, not just in telecoms but also across technology, media, financial services, travel and transport, healthcare and entertainment.

We have bold ambitions, and have already launched a number of new products and services in recent months, including Lycalotto and ChilliTickets, which we acquired earlier this year. Ultimately, we want Lycamobile to be an industry leader in the technology, media and telecoms (TMT) sector and for the group to be a well-established brand, synonymous with connectivity, trust and affordability.

What are the challenges and opportunities you’re facing in a VUCA world? 

We are operating in a highly competitive environment that is becoming increasingly saturated. 

Our flagship brand Lycamobile is faced with the entrance of businesses from a wide variety of sectors, which are showing an interest in launching MVNOs, be it post offices, football clubs, social-media start-ups, multilevel marketing groups, banks, and non-for-profit associations. 

In addition, the sector is rapidly changing with new technologies coming to market, and new regulations being brought in to manage them.

We need to ensure that we are always offering a differentiated service to our customers. We have done this not only by expanding our existing MVNO business into new geographies, ensuring we are able to offer a cost-effective service in the market today, but also by diversifying the business, offering our customers a range of complementary offerings that meet their needs. 

Do you think it’s possible to have a long-term strategy in business, or is success based on agility within the marketplace? 

In this volatile environment, I believe it is important to focus on a long-term strategy and core product offering, ensuring it is delivered consistently, with the highest possible levels of service. 

At Lyca, this means being dedicated to driving forward our ambitious growth plans and customer acquisition target. However, it is crucial to ensure this long-term strategy is never static and continuously reviewed. We must continue to have an innovative, dynamic and entrepreneurial approach that will allow us to react quickly to changing technology, customer needs, and the developing economic and political climate. 

We would not have got where we are today without this ethos. We have always been committed to staying ahead of the game, and so must remain dynamic and adaptive and push forward into new areas and markets that others haven’t, adapting to our external environment accordingly. 

What do you see as the trends impacting most on employers’ strategy globally? 

We are predominantly a technology-focused business and must compete with some of the world’s largest tech companies, to source and retain people with the right skills to drive the business forward and remain on top of the recent technological advancements. 

By fostering employee growth and development, we aim to create an environment where our staff are able to thrive, feel supported, become adaptable to different situations and want to remain loyal to the firm. Despite being a company with more than 8,000 employees, we retain a strong family feel, with everyone invested in the success of the business and experiencing the same highs and lows together. Everything we do at Lycamobile is about connecting with people and bringing communities together, and that’s also our attitude towards our employees. 

How do you ensure there is a culture of innovation throughout the organisation? 

Ensuring a culture of innovation within the group is crucial as we continue to develop high-quality products and services to meet our customers’ varied needs. 

Lycamobile is proud to be a market leader in our industry, and a large part of that is down to our commitment to staying ahead of the game by pushing forward and moving into new areas or markets that others haven’t. Not only have we been able to capitalise on this approach, but we’ve ensured we are delivering the best services to our customers, by continuing to meet their ever-changing needs.

We are dedicated to supporting, developing and nurturing the next generation of senior management, so hiring the right people at all levels of the business is vital, ensuring we maintain and foster the company values of trust, connectivity and innovation. It’s important that despite being a company of 8,000 people, we’ve maintained an open atmosphere, where staff at all levels feel comfortable putting forward ideas, big or small, which are supported, discussed and explored. 

You’ve moved between borders throughout your career. How have you been able to adapt?

I’m not sure how rare this trait is; the movement of people is as old as the world itself. However, having moved from Sri Lanka to Europe to escape the civil war at an early age, I’ve had to learn how to quickly and purposefully adapt to new cultures, markets and contexts in both my personal and business lives, and this certainly hasn’t been easy. But, over the years we’ve managed to transform these survival tactics into a set of core skills which have become the foundation of Lyca’s success and the key to running a successful global company. 

These skills – agility, flexibility, being relationships-driven – are not only the skills that we drive every employee to have, but also enable us to adapt our products and services across borders, and build strong and constructive relationships with partners across our operating regions. 

Lyca Group has employees in 21 countries – how do you ensure there is
a consistent mission and culture?

Working across such a diverse range of markets, it’s important that we uphold the clarity of our mission to connect communities and bring people together through a range of high quality products and services. To ensure that this message is spread across all our operating regions, we have a strong culture driven from the centre of the Lyca Group. 

Our management team is committed to travelling across the different markets to lead negotiations, build lasting relationships with our partners, and place people who share Lyca’s values in key positions.

Do you feel optimistic about the future of business in the age of the ‘new normal’?

As a group, we continue to adapt and evolve to market developments and new environments and are excited about plans to ensure the continued success of the Lyca Group through a programme of expansion into new markets and sectors. 

Reports have shown that the MVNO market will continue to grow in the coming years and we aim to be at the forefront of that growth, with plans to have 50 million people using Lycamobile by 2020, focusing on Africa, Asia and South America for growth – huge, largely untapped markets for MVNOs. We know we can make a real difference to people’s lives by bringing cost-efficient, high-quality products and services to help them better connect with their communities. 

I certainly feel very optimistic about the future.