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Are you prepared for the next crisis?

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

There was a time when business continuity seemed like a fairly tick-box exercise for many of us.

We’d have a list of emergency contacts and emergency plans held for use in the event of fire or flood. The bigger, more technically enabled organisations had disaster recovery centres in place, just in case of cyber-attack, or whole buildings being wiped out. Sometimes we’d even run real-time disaster scenarios to show how prepared we really were in case of whatever crisis hit us.

And then COVID-19 hit.

Slight problem. Not many of us had figured a pandemic into the plans, and if we had, had we reckoned on the impacts of measures such as furlough, self-isolation, social distancing and lockdown of whole sectors? Probably not.

It meant that many of us had to quickly go back to the drawing board for our business continuity plans. Others had to write them from scratch. Others still resembled Corporal Jones shouting, ‘Don’t panic! Don’t panic!’ whilst running about like a headless chicken not actually achieving anything.

Sixteen months into the pandemic and normality looking tantalisingly close, we may be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief and consigning our continuity plans to the file marked, ‘been there, done that.’

However – and it’s a big however – it would be foolhardy to think lightning won’t strike twice. Granted, it may not be at pandemic level, but with the threats of cyber-crime becoming ever more sophisticated, with town centres changing as people choose not to return to the office, with climate change, property booms and a multitude of other potential risks, it pays to channel your inner Boy Scout / Girl Guide and ‘Be Prepared.’

We’ve seen businesses who had always thought home-working impossible have their employees set up and productive within weeks. We’ve seen local food shops deliver their wares when they were unable to open. We’ve seen events companies set up online to keep their brand experience going.

As well as this sudden pace and entrepreneurship, in the latter months of the pandemic we’ve also seen the other side of the coin. The initial gung-ho, in-it-all-together spirit has been replaced by an overwhelming fatigue seen at a widespread level. Burnout from being unable to separate work and home, suspicion of neighbours, low-level rule-breaking and anger at emergency guidelines that may seem arbitrary, have all let to an increased fractiousness and intolerance of our fellow human beings.

We’ve heard of customer service workers brought to tears by the actions of the general public more times in the last couple of months than in the whole of their careers. Abuse, snarled threats, exhaustion have replaced the rose-tinted rainbow early weeks of celebrating our key worker heroes. The trust we placed in government when lockdown was implemented to save the NHS has ebbed away and likewise, the trust in the promises to restore our freedoms is at an all-time low, with Christmas cancelled, problems with vaccinations, and Freedom Day postponed.

In short, we’ve seen cultural change at an extraordinary macro level, and it would be unwise to think this isn’t also replicated within our own organisations.

And so it seems sensible to factor cultural impacts into the risks log of future business continuity plans.

From Covid, we’ve learned that the longer a crisis goes on, the harder it is to maintain trust. It’s something to consider when preparing our leadership teams for their role in future crisis planning. All eyes will be on them and their behaviour.

The correlation between leadership and cultural experience is something that boutique leadership consultancy, A Matter of Choice, are more than familiar with, with their recent research on leadership during the pandemic producing some ground-breaking results.

Described as ‘cultural catalysts’ by their clients, they are passionate about the impacts of culture and behaviour on organisational success. “When I talk to leaders about risk, they often forget about the people,” says Karen Powell, joint founder of A Matter of Choice. “The impact on people is often far-reaching, it’s a commercial responsibility, not something fluffy or a nice to have. Think about the impact of wellbeing on retention, productivity and engagement. The fact is that you can’t afford not to assess and plan for cultural impacts when creating your business continuity strategy.”

If this all sounds rather daunting, then sit up.

The advice A Matter of Choice gives to their clients is practical. Rather than just adding a potential epidemic and some hand sanitiser into future business continuity plans and risk registers, have a good think about what Covid has taught you and your organisation. What went well? What could you have done better? What would you do again if, heaven forbid, there is a next time?

Then, to give this the gravitas it deserves, review these cultural impacts within your corporate risk governance framework and assign ownership and accountability.

Lesley Heath, joint co-founder of A Matter of Choice and Karen’s twin, believes businesses need to adopt a more holistic business continuity plan in the post-Covid world. “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’re never going to change,” she says. “We approach organisations with their crisis planning by helping them capture their learnings in a forensic review, including the people and cultural impacts, and incorporating them into their risk control measures.”

Their ground-breaking research, carried out with leaders and influencers during the pandemic, identified a core set of ten key leadership mindsets and behaviours which influence effective leadership in successful organisations. Organisations who demonstrated these are the ones who’ve emerged from the pandemic relatively unscathed, even stronger. As they’ve adjusted to the new reality, they’ve treated their employees like responsible adults, found a balance between compassion and commerciality and approached the crisis and the difficult decisions they’ve had to make consciously and ethically.

It doesn’t matter on the size of the business, or even necessarily the budget. But what has been consistent is the demonstration of these core mindsets and a direct link to the return on investment made in cultural and leadership development, in particular:

- Mental Toughness - Going beyond resilience, this ability to deal with challenges runs through the veins of effective leaders. Being able to take control, adapting to changing situations with agility and flair have been crucial to leading teams through the crisis. Not the same as being tough, mental toughness is about displaying a will to win and being fleet of foot in pressured environments.

In other words, it’s OK to have a plan, but you need to be ready to rip it up and start again if needed.

- Optimism - No one needs a mood hoover in a leader. And everyone needs a ‘why.’ An optimistic (but always authentic) leader will cut through the fog to shape a sense of purpose for themselves, their team and organisation when there doesn’t appear to be one. Rallying the troops, being seen to set a clear intention through transparent communications, and being able to provide clarity in ambiguous, murky circumstances leads to greater engagement - and your staff willing to stand behind you and your purpose.

This is especially important when a shared crisis means it’s hard to see the wood for the trees. After all, we may not have the answers, but by working together we can find a solution.

- Can Do - In times of hardship, these leaders will roll their sleeves up and get stuck in. A courageous role model, they are passionate about what their organisations do, and their pragmatic approach shows a clear will to win as they step outside their comfort zones.

Here, we saw senior leaders working in the warehouse, mopping floors, doing anything to keep their business going when their teams were decimated due to illness or isolation. They were one of the team, and made sure the business kept going.

Effective leaders have emerged, albeit battle-scarred, from the other side of the coronavirus storm. They are the ones who looked the challenge facing them in the eyes, took it on and made swift decisions. They are the ones who didn’t dilly-dally, but diversified. The ones who quickly supported their employees’ needs and adopted a flexible, agile approach to the task in hand – getting through the pandemic, when all we knew was up in the air. They are the ones who have retained their employees, expanded their ranges and services, and even grown.

Covid-19 has taught us we can’t plan for every eventuality, and nor should we expect to. But what we can do is develop our leadership potential, adapt and evolve our mindsets so we’re ready to take on whatever challenges come our way next. Hopefully not another pandemic, but whether this, fire, flood, a new competitor on the scene or something else that upsets the status quo, we’ll be ready to face it with the right frame of mind.

Kate Goodman

Communications Consultant, The Good Comms Company Ltd.

To find out more about the key leadership mindsets for success and business continuity, purchase a copy of the ground-breaking research report, or to discover the bespoke leadership development programmes report authors A Matter of Choice can offer you

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