The learn-it-all does better than the know-it-all


I shall be borrowing a quote from Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, with regards today’s article. If one is to find a silver lining for the COVID-19 crisis, this has been the speed at which various businesses have learnt to manage better and achieve greater quality and cost control. A wartime mindset—defined by decisive crisis management, scenario planning and a human reflex attuned to the economic and health shocks has been the hallmark of good business leaders in the crisis so far.

However true business leaders must always be one step ahead. When eventually the world will start truly recovering from this crisis, business leaders must be ready to steer their businesses from another risk that will surely be looming – the risk stemming from the longing for a return to the operating style of the days before COVID-19.

Business leaders need to avoid the impulse to abandon the progress they have made in shaping a more productive and competitive company profile during this crisis, in an eventual post-pandemic world (yes there will eventually be a post-pandemic world!). To be honest, we have heard it and most probably said it many times that the essence of every business is its people. However, now more than ever, even in a post-pandemic world, the real answer lies in a renewed focus on people and their capabilities. Only by advancing a new generation of adaptive, resilient leaders who are also fluent in technology that cuts across operational silos, will companies be able to work with the speed and impact necessary. The message for business leader is clear. The need for a changed mindset and the focus on investing in people to have the necessary skills to adapt has never been higher. Without this companies will not be able to fully take advantage of the post-crisis era to come.

Let me therefore give some pointers on what is critical for managing people and building capabilities to thrive in the post-pandemic period.

  1. Put in tomorrow’s team today
    As in many disruptions, leaders are finding that talent is stepping up in unexpected ways. Business literature is presently peppered with stories of how some young middle managers in their organisations are defying the problems and frustrations of this difficult period to achieve far more than peer leaders do, with the best up coming leaders being beacons of calm, resiliency and adapted quickly to people leadership, while others business leaders got lost as they only amplify stress. Literature is also indicating that the more capable leaders are also the ones who demonstrate the most empathetic leadership styles. Hence, leaders should celebrate and duly reward such good leaders, while also setting aside underperformers. This sets the tone for what you value and affords greater clarity in decision making. To return to the analogy of wartime leadership, who should get the field promotion and help lead the business to out perform in the future? If you want a war history analogy read the history of the Second World War in North Africa and how things changed around when Churchill installed Montgomery as the British leading force in that battle, to beat Rommel and his Afrika Korps.
  1. Identify and elevate the handful of tangible business skills that matter most
    Leaders and boards need to identify the core capabilities that matter most to the next normal and make this the priority of each department leader and executive. For example, what provisions do you have in place to encourage executives to sharpen their ability to adapt to uncertainty while maintaining strategic focus? By wary of leaders, especially senior leaders , that are focused on tactical details. They’ll think they’re staying strategic, but strategic planning isn’t being done. They stay in a reactive mode and never gain the initiative, which puts the importance on the need to build a culture of adaptability to anticipate the next shock or black-swan event. Hence the importance of training and the pivotal role of the HR managers to take a lead here. The focus should be on the organisation’s most tangible and critical business skills and a commitment to driving them deep into the organisation. Some of such capabilities, for which focused training will be needed are:
  • Managing in a transformational way. By adopting a transformational mindset, companies accomplish so much more than they think they can. Rather than aiming for a 5% improvement, shoot for 20%. Far more ambitious targets can unlock energy and achieve a lasting step change in performance. Today, areas like digitising customer engagement and launching new products attuned to a changing world are ripe for a transformational push.
  • Navigating and leading in a network of teams. The modern company is much more complex than it was 20 years ago. The need is greater to do away with rigid hierarchies and operate under a network of empowered teams to get closer to customers and boost a company’s agility. Executives who are able to navigate these will do better, but very few have been trained in these skills.
  • Business fundamentals. We’re often surprised at how thirsty executives are for refreshers on business basics. Too often, these foundations of efficient and effective functional operation get lost in the stampede to adopt the latest trend. Building core functional capabilities around cash flows, business cases and scenario thinking is critical to understand and unlock an organisation’s true value drivers
  • New business models. While much has changed in a few short months, the importance of business models has not. A good business model still directly addresses Peter Drucker’s iconic questions about who the customer is and what the customer values. Amid disruption, uncertainty and ever-faster competition, those who can adapt, generate and implement new business models will come out ahead.
  1. Treat technological acumen as you treat profit targets
    The COVID-19 crisis has forced companies great and small to vault ahead five years, in a matter of weeks, in adopting and applying digital technologies. From remote learning to distance meetings, technological transformation has been accelerated by years as the metabolic rate of business has sped up. The winners of this massive experiment will be more nimble, flexible and fast in applying the cloud computing, data analytics and data-management technologies, to name a few. Simply put, today’s challenge is that most organisations lack the basic technological understanding to lead and manage through the crisis. In the past, leaders would attempt to remedy such failures by hiring IT experts or IT champions but cultural differences largely scuttled such efforts. What really works is when leaders drive technological acumen into all executives and measure their proficiency and improvement as you measure profit targets. As your companies will eventually emerge from the pandemic, now is the time for any business leader to baseline his or her leadership team’s technology savvy and unleash the individual talents of such leaders on technology so the organisation can thrive.
  1. Liberate teams to solve problems rapidly from a customer perspective
    By and large, the great remote-working experiment brought on by the crisis has shown that a lot can be accomplished, immediately and virtually, with small teams and streamlined operations and without so much time expended on travel. This is extremely important with regards the need for speed which I had spoken about in the past. Without addressing speed, an organisation’s progress in adapting merely grinds along. Streamlining for speed can remedy this by gathering a smaller group—for example, the CEO and the heads of finance and operations—to handle issues and changes needed swiftly. The small group can quickly debate, narrow down options and decide final resource-allocation targets.

Whilst business leaders are engulfed with dealing with the present crisis they need to also think on what should be retained from what has been learned during this period of pandemic shock, uncertainty and dramatic change in the way their business have reacted to crisis. Reverting to the way things were prior to the pandemic is in my view a mistake and a waste, as doing so smacks of the know-it-all arrogance. I am personally convinced that those companies that invest in capabilities to empower leadership, teams and technology to take up a learn-it-all approach, will be the ones that thrive in the post-pandemic era.

At EMCS we specialise in offering focused and tailor made training to adapt internal cultures, increase operational agility and help companies adapt to the new reality. We also specialise in coupling any needed training with a full internal and external review of a company to make sure that our service is based on a holistic view. Feel free to contact me on to discuss. There is absolutely no need to commit to anything by just having a discussion.

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