Adrian Moorhouse: leading in uncertain times

Adrian Moorhouse presenting

Control the controllables and don’t panic

“Control the controllables,” is sometimes an overused phrase, but it’s got real merit. As human beings, we all crave safety and certainty. In the absence of either, it can be too easy for our mind to go haywire and play out all the potentially terrible outcomes that will likely never happen. To avoid that state of panic, I like to hone in on the things I can control. I know I can’t control how coronavirus will play out, but I can control the way I think about it and how prepared Lane4 is for any potential outcomes.

Part of this is about your own mindset. Are you blindly optimistic, a realist or pessimist? Remind yourself of what uncertainty actually means – when you think about it, it’s not inherently good or bad!

Listen, gather data and aim for a balanced view

The way we get and consume information greatly determines the way we think and feel, so be careful with the stories you read and the ones you might be telling yourself. Strive for a balanced view as much as you can.

I like to tap into as many sources as possible and I find that speaking to other business leaders is one of my best sources of data. I also read a selection of different newspapers and listen to various radio shows whilst remembering that every source will have a particular bias. I like to challenge myself to read the different biases and then aggregate them to help form my own view.

Another vital source of information comes from clients and employees. They can be your early warning system if something is about to go wrong, or in fact, if it isn’t.

For example, in 2012, Lane4 implemented a new strategy which included making changes to our organisational structure and how we worked. It had been very well planned and implemented but in 2013, instead of the growth we had hoped for, our revenue declined. Unlike coronavirus, this was an internal uncertainty.

When we didn’t experience the growth we were hoping for, doubts started to emerge about the strategy and whether it was right for us. The important thing for me was to gather evidence and specific examples of where the strategy was and wasn’t working before changing anything.

It turned out that where we were hearing “it’s not working,” no one could provide any specific examples of where the strategy wasn’t working. It was more general comments and on reflection, perhaps that was more a product of the fear of change. However, when we asked for stories of where the strategy was working well, they were really specific. Overall there was significantly more evidence that the strategy would work. And it did. We saw tremendous growth in 2014 and realised that there was just a lag effect of the strategy being introduced. There were lots of people in new roles, many of whom had new line managers, so it was just a case of letting the strategy settle in.

That experience taught me a lot about dealing with uncertainty, especially the importance of cutting through the noise of fear, listening to evidence and backing your people.

Back your people and be there for them

“Back your people” was a soundbite I first heard from someone during the recession in 2008 and it’s really stuck with me. The recession was looking like it was going to be long and tough, and business leaders weren’t going to be able to pull off taking their organisations through it alone. They needed a skilled and engaged workforce to help them through it.

However, I think that senior leaders can sometimes struggle with putting so much trust in their people and find it easier to retrench. They begin to think that because they are the leaders of the business, they have to solve everything. At their worst, I’ve seen leaders pull up the drawbridge on decision making and empowerment, telling people they can’t spend money or that they have to change processes. Unsurprisingly, it’s the worst thing that senior leaders can do as they end up significantly increasing their work load, becoming stressed and alienating the next few levels of leadership beneath them.

Instead, senior leaders need to trust their people and accept that it’s ok for them to admit they are uncertain too.

In uncertain times, it’s even more important for leaders to be visible in the business, learn what people have been hearing and what’s going on for them. I like to think of organisations as living organisms rather than a hierarchical chart with linear paths. Leading in this way can give you a sense of being hyperconnected to the organisation, allowing you to tap in to what’s going on at multiple levels in the business, whilst also putting messages back out. In the case of coronavirus this is especially challenging, as you may no longer be able to be physically present with your people. It is crucial, therefore, to consider how you are using other channels to reach your people – emails, livestreams and internal updates should all be used carefully but regularly.

Be agile and prepared to adapt

In times of uncertainty, you must be completely confident that the product or service you are offering is relevant to your market and keep re-evaluating your relevance. That’s one of the biggest lessons I took from the 2008 recession where I saw a lot of businesses struggling.

That confidence has to be paired with a willingness to be agile. Just because you are relevant today, doesn’t mean you’ll still be relevant 12 months from now. In uncertain times, it can be too easy for your focus to be drawn to the day to day operations of your business, but you’ll need to strike a balance between the short- and medium-term plan of the business if you want to stay agile and relevant.

In an uncertain world, rigidity will be your enemy. Control what you can, be hyperalert, back your people and be ready to adapt.