How to lead in uncertain times


This article is brought to you by Retail Technology Review: How to lead in uncertain times.

By Jeremy Snape, founder and managing director, Sporting Edge. 

If the disruption and competitive threats to retailers from the likes of Amazon and discounters were not enough, there are also such issues as concerns as the impact of climate change and sustainability, possible supply chain market disruption from Brexit, and global trade. Under pressure to deliver financial results while planning for the unexpected, the mettle of those at the top is being tested like never before.

Whether you are in eCommerce or retail, there is no escaping the fact that 2019 will be a pivotal year. Besides technology continually propelling changes in customer behaviours, supply chain models are being challenged by political instability and there’s increased competition from around the world.

For the many businesses that trade between the EU and UK, Brexit is yet another daily headache they could do without. Supply chains have been readying themselves for some time, with stockpiling peaking, at least temporarily, in February to such an extent it actually boosted the UK economy. 

Following the recent Brexit extension the only certainty is uncertainty. Dealing with such chronic uncertainty and pressure is enough to test the mettle of any leader, especially as in business many feel that leaders are expected to know all the answers.

Business threats are more complex than ever and likely to stay that way, so to be an effective leader you need to adapt your style to fit this new environment.

For lessons in how to lead under pressure, it is worth looking outside the world of business to other professions where uncertainty is the norm.

The military, for instance, and elite sport both operate in environments of intense pressure, constant uncertainty and, in the case of the military, life or death decisions.  You could argue that the career of a Premier League football manager is one of the most precarious positions, with every weekend’s decision being open to global scrutiny while a sudden run of poor results leading to their dismissal…making the quarterly reporting of listed companies look slow in comparison!

Throughout the past decade I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most impressive and prolific leaders, from former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson to military generals and even the Performance Director at the Cirque du Soleil to understand what tactics and strategies they use to mentally prepare for uncertainty. 

In doing so I have distilled the secrets of their success into a digital library which helps my clients to maintain a winning mindset when they need it most.

Here are some essential features that their mindsets have in common that helps them cope with chronic uncertainty. 

Stop blaming others; own the situation 

Whether its Brexit or trade wars between the US and China, there are plenty of people you may want to blame. If that is what you are doing, get over it. 

In the world of sport, we see elite coaches stepping up when things have gone wrong, not making excuses.

Ireland Rugby coach Joe Schmidt didn’t hide after his team was beat by Wales in the final Six Nations rugby match in February. It emerged after the game that a stomach bug had disrupted match preparations. Schmidt, however, did not use that as an excuse for the defeat. Ireland was simply beaten by a better team, and will be using harsh lesson to be even better prepared for the World Cup in Japan.

As Schmidt shows, great leaders don’t waste time blaming others: it may win you sympathy, but it won’t help you solve the problems.

Uncertainty creates opportunity so start by owning the situation and making a plan that turns the uncertainty into an advantage.  After all, other businesses have the same problems so those that actively tackle the situation will be the ones that succeed.  

Pressure is a privilege 

Having played in and worked with some of the world’s highest profile sporting teams, I’ve seen how they use pressure as privilege and use this mindset to tackle potential issues head on. Worrying about what might or could happen leads to paralysis, so an effective leader must embrace the challenges ahead.

In the military, the best leaders prepare their teams for Plan A, but they also throw scenarios into the training that gets the teams thinking on their feet. I’ve supported several senior leadership sessions at Sandhurst military academy and heard how they create challenging and chaotic scenarios to test the soldiers’ ability to think clearly and adapt under pressure. 

In a business context, this could mean equipping teams with the skills to make decisions under extreme pressure and rehearsing with scenarios. By pressure testing various challenges, you will be more familiar with the decision-making sequence that follows when chaos ensues. 

Don’t micromanage – enable

Great leaders build trust in their teams so that they are empowered to make crucial decisions when needed.

Despite the pressure for short term results forcing us to monitor every moving part, we should take a lesson from the rugby coach. 

While football managers shout and wave their arms on the touchline in an attempt to control the play, rugby coaches sit calmly in the stands. This creates a different philosophy where the coach is there to create better decision makers rather than more excellent sheep. Providing a line of strategic intent and then leaving some autonomy and freedom for the players to adapt to what they see is essential. 

This is also true in business. Through disruption, businesses are looking for creativity, collaboration and innovation yet they strangle new ideas and agility with directive leadership and bureaucracy. Elite sports teams use a rapid learning cycle of ‘prepare- do – review’ to ensure that they are constantly improving and refining their skills. 

The business leaders who act as coaches rather than controllers will see the best results as they will inspire their teams to exploit future opportunities. 

Be fluid not fixed

Rapidly changing situations calls for leaders who can bring together diverse people to fix problems and exploit opportunities, fast. 

Leaders must understand that they can’t predict and prevent all problems from arising, they must prepare teams so they can assess and respond quickly.

Understanding your biggest business threats, whether that is Brexit or environmental issues, and how your business will respond if they become reality is important to be able to withstand the pressure that comes from uncertainty.

Confidence comes from preparation, so plan for the unexpected and turn disruption to a commercial advantage. 

Very few will have the perfect strategy to deal with the political uncertainty in coming weeks but those who maximise their mindset and culture will have the best chance of winning whatever the position. 

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