06 Aug 2020 20:29 IST

Pandemic, an opportunity to reimagine a new vision

While Covid-19 has turned up the heat for companies, it's also a petridish for leaders to be formed

Covid looks like it’s here for the long haul. Businesses across the world are now being forced to ask tough questions — what should our business look like? What value should it deliver in this new normal? Leaders are also pushed to ask “How do I adapt? What new skills do I need?” As Paul Polman, former Unilever Chairman, put it, “never waste a good crisis.” It would truly be a wasted opportunity if organisations and leaders only took a temporary, stop-gap view that led to only incremental improvements.

The crisis has provided a lens through which both businesses and leaders can reimagine their vision and the values they bring to the table. A July 2020 McKinsey article mentioned a quote from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Centre CEO, Michael Fisher: “I keep pushing myself and our team to think about how we use this inflection point to reimagine our potential together, as opposed to allowing our organisation to just go back to the comfort of let’s do what we we’re doing.”That is the opportunity that Covid -19 presents to us as leaders —reimagination. Where could we do that?

Our Customers and the business model

How we serve our customers has definitely changed but even the question of “who is my customer” has come up now for leaders who have dared ask that question. And answers will help them lead their organisations in harnessing new opportunities.

The same McKinsey article gives the example of Dubai-based company Majid Al Futtaim (MAF). Attendance at their movie theatres fell off the cliff while demand for its online supermarket took off; in two days, the company retrained 1,000 ushers and ticket sellers to work for the online groceries. The business model changed, the customer in the spotlight changed, and employees had to change.

One challenge is for organisations to not let the pressure of the Covid-19 crisis force them to stray from their core values and their core businesses. Yet, they should not be blind to the new needs, new products, and new customers. I was visiting a neighbourhood xerox centre, which does the usual photocopying and binding work. But now their store had a space carved out for sanitizer stands, masks, and other Covid accessories, and there’s a whole new type of customers streaming into the store for the same. The photocopying operation continues to roll on, though in a slightly smaller space.

Applying the same strategy, personal care companies quickly transformed deodorant factory lines into sanitizer ones. Automobile companies have put small-car models back on accelerated launch paths, as the need for personal transport is expected to spike with commuters opting for safer ways to travel. An entrepreneur friend of mine, whose hand-crafted fashion-wear business nose-dived, pivoted to handmade masks, and is now talking about going international.

In each of these cases, leaders have had to rethink the question. Instead of asking “What is it we do?” they have had to ask, “What is it that we have?”— skills, capabilities, experience, assets. That has made reimagination possible.

Our relationships

Traditional competitive business relationships are also now being reexamined. Competitors could be prospective partners. This attitude begins with the leader. For some leaders, old habits die hard. We had Ambani celebrating the over-100-million milestone of 4G feature phones they have rolled out and in the same breath talking about “2G-mukt” India. As quoted in BusinessLine, it is a dig at his competitors whose revenues are still dependent on the 2G market.

Contrast that with this quote “It is very unfortunate that the Nano didn’t do well.” This isn’t from a Tata Motors senior executive. It’s from Pawan Goenka, Managing Director, Mahindra & Mahindra, a Tata Motors competitor, when he spoke at an alumni event organised by his alma mater IIT Kanpur, as reported by BusinessLine. He had the vision and the foresight to see that his competitor’s product was a true innovation in the right direction— good for consumers and good for the companies in the market. He rues the fact that it didn’t do well. That’s a leader who can truly look above the walls and beyond the boundaries, which a complete businessman-leader can’t or won’t.

As the race to get vaccines to market heats up, it is the leaders and companies that choose to collaborate, share information, build on each other’s ideas that will eventually succeed and execute best.

Ourselves

One of the toughest areas where we struggle to reimagine is ourselves. But this is perhaps where we could have the biggest gains. It is worth looking at Harvard Professor Emeritus Abraham Zaleznik’s beautiful insight on this: “Leaders are ‘twice born’ individuals who endure major events that lead to a sense of separateness, or perhaps estrangement from their environments. As a result, they turn inward in order to emerge with a created rather than an inherited sense of identity.”

This makes Covid the veritable petridish for leaders to be formed. The opportunity to let go of old mental maps, belief systems and constricting attitudes is immense. If we display the self-awareness and self-security that all growth demands, then the Covid crisis gives us a canvas to paint a new vision of ourselves and the impact we can make. Actor Sonu Sood’s outreach effort towards migrants and others in need is an example of reimagining our personal vision. Others stayed spectators, while he chose to see his impact as a leader, and act differently.

We need to use this crisis to reflect on what we are truly passionate about, what energises us, what we don’t view as work but as joy — those will give us clues to build our journey of reimagination. If leaders and organisations retain the lessons and don’t snap back into their previous styles of execution, then new muscles will be built, hidden capabilities unveiled, and problems transformed into opportunities.

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