'Grizzled Survivor', 'Habitual Winner' or 'Young Upstart' – Who can lead recovery after COVID-19?
It is the late 1980’s at one of India’s then marquee consumer companies. A sales management trainee is ordered to report to a major state capital. Her task is to revive a branch office that collapsed due to mismanagement and belligerent trade.
She effects a turnaround in 3 months! In later years she attributes much of her success to youthful inexperience! With no precedent to revert to, there was no selection or conformation bias in her decision making. Unlike a seasoned veteran, she didn’t have to favour successful strategies or past tactics. Instead, she was forced to study mistakes and errors that had happened in the branch, and doubled back to find solutions.
One take-away in this case was that good leadership is conditional and best practices can’t be copy-pasted. Heraclitus the Greek philosopher famously remarked, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he's not the same man.”
The world contemplates re-entry to “normalcy” as the catastrophic Covid lockdown draws to a close. After Covid, the organization and the river of life will change unrecognizably .Some organizations will revive and many will struggle or die. Only superb leadership will help organizations overcome extreme VUCA conditions, especially as there is no experience in living memory to rely on.
These circumstances beg the question – What type of leader would you favour? I present 3 archetypes from the current crop.
The traditional safe bet is a resume of “The Habitual Winner”. A corporate aristocrat from the bluest of blue chips, he has ridden the non-stop prosperity wave of 3 decades. With consistent success as a CXO, his reputation scores 10/10. His CTC is legendary and self-esteem enviable. Steady and solid, he is the poster boy for success.
Or would you prefer the “Young Upstart”? The early thirty-something product of the New Age . Indian and Global Ivy League qualifications, garnished with the mandatory stint in Consulting/ I-Banking/ MNC’s. After the inevitable leap into the Digital ecosystem, riding Unicorns and winning valuation Rodeos is his thing. This sharp New Kid on the Block has successfully compressed intuition, intellect and bold thinking for the millisecond timelines demanded by digital ecosystems. A page 3 favourite, no moon-shot is too far nor is any pivot challenging
Finally, I give you the "Grizzled Survivor". With decades of tactical and strategic experience, she’s a veteran of rough encounters. With similar credentials as the other archetypes, she seemed to have chosen early a path less trodden. By traditional standards, her score card reads like a draw of wins and losses. The businesses she led were iconic but messy. The industry segments she worked on were mutating roller coasters. Her experience was less about CTC and more about troubleshooting, managing stakeholders and inventing the future. An interdisciplinary generalist, at home with Renewal and Exits, she loves turnarounds . “But is she reliable?”, is the whisper going around!
Corporations need to make the right leadership choices in the “Post Covid Recovery Era”. This period, possibly lasting the next 3-5 years, will be about classic fundamentals. Cash Flow, Gross Margin, People management, Creditors management, market savviness, steady and reliable operational processes, a culture of innovation– These will be the mantras of the Recovery Era.
But that’s the easy part and then there are the paradoxes.
There will be a inter-generational operational paradox, that I call the “Covid Paradox” - Fundamental outcomes will belong to the Old Economy era, while the operating conditions will come from the New Age Tech world.
There will be a need to renew, balancing a mix of innovation and dynamic capabilities .Every plan will face challenges and there is high likelihood of failure, due to the unpredictable environment.
Good leadership will be open-minded yet disciplined. Impending turnarounds will be call for nerves of steel and delicate hands. Being fearless in decline and willingness to learn from mistakes will be crucial. And finally, the leader will not be motivated by money, but the once-in-a- generation opportunity to create value and a legacy.
Strategic choices in the Recovery Era will likely mimic Buridan’s Paradox (“Should two courses be judged equal, then the will cannot break the deadlock, all it can do is to suspend judgement until the circumstances change, and the right course of action is clear”). Free will and action will clash with deterministic or external compulsions, triggering risky decisions or decision paralysis
Habitual winners and Young upstarts could be handicapped in this phase. The former being used to predictable operating conditions, and the latter lacking the patience to deliver traditional business metrics. While the Youth will definitely be fearless in the storm, one wonders about his lack of staying power. As for the Habitual winner, he has proven experience but does he have the stomach for unpredictable, messy battles and is it worth blotting the perfect copybook?
Would it be contrarian to go with energetic Grizzled Survivors, supervised by wise boards/entrepreneurs? The restless trainee whose story we began with, could do just fine…….