By: Stuart White 03-09-2020
American appliance giant General Electric (GE) used to be known as “the business and leadership icon - a reflection of its past glory of the 80s and 90s. Today it has deteriorated to a company running out of cash and divesting of most of its acquisitions. One of the reasons for this fall from fortune, as reported in the book Lights Out, is attributed to its leaders’, -JackWelch and Jeff Immelt - failure to let the company “recover” from all its acquisitions, transformations, and trauma. GE would work frantically, never tolerating a downturn or slowdown in its business and the author illustrates this with his own experience with GE Digital “these guys are rushing forward at a fevered pace but aren’t sure where they’re going.” They never took the time to reflect and regenerate - a critical consideration if you accept that it doesn’t always make sense for people and business to be on continuous high alert. We can’t be ‘on’ all the time. The passage in Ecclesiastes 3:2 stating ‘there is a time for every purpose under heaven’ is relevant in business too...a time for thinking, reflecting, innovating etc. and that is the opportunity we have today.
A few weeks ago, I ranted about wanting life to return to the way it was pre-COVID. Like a textbook case of going through change there was denial, anger, frustration between the lines and all the stages present until I could find semblance of acceptance. I always feel better and more relaxed after a rant and it made me realise that accepting the status quo was the only way forward - I have long ago learned the pointlessness of railing about situations you can’t control, aside from some therapeutic catharsis. The Mark Twain saying springs to mind - “Everybody is talking about the weather; why doesn’t somebody do something?” which, although speaks more to subtle irony of human futility, it emphasises the point of putting your energy where you can make a difference, rather than where you can’t.
Reflecting on where we are, the first thing that comes to mind is that the digital world is metaphorically exploding and let’s face it, it has been a godsend in this crisis. There is a lot of money, expectation and growth in the tech industry today (last month the Nasdaq hit a new high with the price to earnings ratio at 36!) And for the most part it is working well – Microsoft Teams, Zoom, emails - and people have adjusted. No longer are we having to coax clients like horses reluctantly led to water but stubbornly refusing to drink, to interview online and conference call - that’s now becoming the default position. This week my company advertised for a head of Digital Transformation– the second such job in recent months - as client’s respond to the need from to drive a cultural transformation around digital work.
Another area taking centre stage is Health and Wellbeing as companies realise that if workers and customers don’t feel safe their business is as good as dead in the water. We can see this reflected in the retail sector. Sainsbury in the UK is accelerating services such as home delivery, contactless retail shopping and new in-store experiences which are sanitary and safe. Soon it’s feasible that with plastic barriers and other measures it will be possible to walk through an entire store without coming into physical contact with another person, if we even physically go to the store, that is. Another UK company, Big Motoring World, specialising in the country’s widest selection of used cars has changed its former slogan from ‘Go big or go hone’ to ‘Go big from your home’, offering a virtual browsing and buying experience , followed by home delivery of a sanitised, safe auto product.
Another significant change is the decentralisation and allowing more to happen at the local level. There is a realisation that you have to let people get on with it and that you don’t need to jump on an aeroplane or travel across the city for a central meeting. We are moving towards “globally integrated businesses” with less local control but more local empowerment.
Also morphing is the speed that companies can adapt and alter their business models. For example, I have long been wondering why we can’t advertise job vacancies online rather than traditional print media which elsewhere in the world this is seen as old fashioned. Hey presto, overnight we now have digital newspapers’.
Talent Management expert Josh Bersin explained recently in his blog how he had spent time with PepsiCo and “we discussed in detail how quickly they developed an entire Pandemic response, education, wellbeing, and employee education programme. This was an enormous success – because they had the freedom to act quickly and distribute the solution to business units in weeks. In the past, an initiation like that would have taken years of coordination to design and approve. Now it’s formulated in rapid response to scale and flex at a local level yet remains coordinated globally through data and platforms. I can see the opportunities this innovative attitude offers.
So, you know what folks it is adapt or die. You can't control the weather, but you can control your response to it. You can dress for it, you can modify your actions (drive more slowly when it rains), or stay in the air conditioning when it is too hot. This pandemic forced the need to streamline, stream and innovate – to go virtual, to cut costs and improve employee and client satisfaction. The smart money is on retaining these methods post-Covid. We’ve survived the shock, now appreciate the ‘or’!