How to Lead in the New Normal

Lessons From The Great Recession

IN 2009, in the thick of the Great Recession, I wrote a white paper describing most companies’ challenges. I provided a framework for how they could emerge from the ashes of the economic downturn. As we come out of the COVID 19 pandemic, one is aware of how history repeats itself. Problems may change, but solutions often stay the same. Here is an excerpt from that paper.

Many organizations will discover too late that survival mode is no longer adequate. A shift has occurred, requiring leaders to exercise more than situational awareness to identify immediate short-term financial trends. Leaders in the New Normal 2.0 must open their eyes to emerging, even sometimes barely detectable, long-term shifts in the societal and global business marketplace.

Leaders must take fundamental action in three ways. Leaders must assess how relevant trends impact their organizations, create responsive and compelling mission statements, and then develop strategies using the right set of master disciplines. Organizations that follow these steps will do more than survive in the New Normal 2.0.

Embracing the New Normal 2.0

Within the New Normal, 2.0 framework, leaders need to have their eyes and ears open to business trends. After all, if they do not see the storm coming, they cannot prepare for its arrival. If leaders are unaware of customer buying patterns, they cannot correctly adjust their pricing models. If they don’t grasp their business’s true core, they cannot adapt to changing market conditions and capitalize on new opportunities.

The first step for leaders facing major transition is to heighten their awareness of marketplace changes. Excellent tools exist, including customer relationship management (CRM), voice-of-the-customer (VOC) processes, and data analysis on demographic, economic, and political changes. Leaders benefit when they step out of their offices and engage with colleagues, vendors, suppliers, and community associations. They also can gauge their market through social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Secondly, leaders must focus intensively on how to adapt to emerging conditions. They must develop both a sound strategy and a management discipline that facilitates high engagement levels with employees and customers.

Finally, leaders must explore and define their companies’ core business in a collaborative manner that taps into managers’ minds at all organizational levels. Noncore activities must be eliminated or minimized so that resources can be focused on what matters most. The result will be an authentic, relevant brand that resonates with customers and employees.

When forward-looking leaders try to adapt to new conditions, they often encounter resistance. Many of their critics perpetuate the myth that only when survival is assured can the business of growth be addressed. “Once we cut costs, we can think about our future,” “Once we eliminate the annual bonus, we can address employee engagement,” or “Once we redesign our cost structure, we can reassess customer service.”

Even in a downturn economy, companies can survive and thrive simultaneously, and results can be sustained over the long term. Organizations continue to grow if leadership maintains a transcending vision, high-level skills, and discipline.

Being effective in the New Normal 2.0

The best approach is for organizational leadership to ask the following:

  • As our organization’s complexity continues to grow, how can we improve coordination and productivity by creating a shared understanding of what co-workers do and why?
  • With an aging and shifting population creating less demand for what we do, how can we add more value to our goods and services that will last long after the point of sale?
  • Instead of responding to dwindling resources and growing competition by redoubling output efforts, how can we provide our people the tools, authority, and accountability to collaborate and implement?
  • As our customers’ face changes and their needs evolve, how do we participate in that evolution and provide them the amount of value they never imagined possible?
  • As digital influence, creativity, collaboration, and versatility become the traits needed in tomorrow’s employees, where are we limiting ‘bottom-up’ communication? How can we prepare our employees to lead our business’s future needs?

Discovering a Compelling Mission

Once a company assesses the trends shaping the New Normal 2.0, the next step is to create a responsive and compelling mission statement with a skilled facilitator. It’s essential that individuals who execute the vision be included. Organizations that adapt quickly in this manner have an advantage. They develop the ability to recreate and morph themselves in response to shifting trends without losing sight of their long-term vision and values.

With eyes and ears wide open, they courageously embrace the trends, conditions, and previously hidden opportunities in the New Normal 2.0. Unlike last-generation companies that give little or no attention to their mission statements after they have been written, next-generation companies recognize that the process of developing their mission statements can be as important as the final product.

These organizations know that despite all the external challenges, they remain their own biggest adversary. So before they roll up their sleeves and develop strategies to address New Normal 2.0 trends and conditions, they use their heightened awareness to engage a cross-section of all stakeholders to answer questions such as:

  • Who are we, and what do we stand for?
  • What kinds of higher-order value do we want the world to have tomorrow that it doesn’t have today?
  • What precise benefits do we want to provide?
  • Who will gain from the value we create?
  • What will we never do to our key constituencies?
  • Where, when, and how will we provide this value?
  • Why are we doing all this?

Master Disciplines

Last-generation companies develop strategies to fulfill the goals implied in their mission statement. Or, they merely address current issues or opportunities as they arise. Strategies for the New Normal 2.0 should do both. The key is to develop strategies that grow from the compelling mission, using the right set of master disciplines that provide continuity through branding, messaging, and implementing strategic activities. Leaders in this environment must guide the creation and flow of strategies.

The New Normal 2.0 Leadership Framework is crafted based on five master disciplines. These master disciplines are used at the point a strategy is first discussed:

Focus – gaining and keeping the focus on actionable priorities.

Attitude – maintaining a “can-do” attitude and perspective that focuses on the vision of what is possible.

New technologies – taking strategic advantage of evolving digital platforms and social media.

Authenticity — enforcing the organization’s brand throughout its internal and external messaging and its culture and practices.

Continuous review and feedback – instilling an inclusive culture of continuous review and feedback to encourage ongoing improvement and employee engagement.

Leaders in the New Normal 2.0 should ask themselves similar questions when assessing their competencies:

  • Do I and those I lead have clarity, buy-in, and commitment to a compelling mission?
  • Am I focusing on actionable priorities?
  • Am I maintaining a “can- do” attitude?
  • Am I focused on what is possible instead of only on current conditions?
  • Am I authentic by modeling the best of the organization’s values and brand?
  • Am I taking full advantage of digital services and social media? Do I have digital influence?
  • Am I continuously giving and receiving feedback to encourage ongoing improvement and employee engagement?

Thriving in a New Age

Today, the New Normal 2.0 represents a seismic shift that matches or exceeds the changes that came with the Industrial or Information Ages. The upheaval spans our economy, culture, and workforce. It shapes how we use technology and how we deliver value to customers and communities.

Yet, many of the ways we run our businesses, lead and manage our employees, and service our customers still come from a command and control lens. This mindset represents a ball and chain that holds organizations back. What is needed is a whole new operating system for how leaders run their companies. Next-generation companies will reinvent themselves not by playing it safe or holding onto comfortable notions based on tradition. They will ask themselves questions that get to the heart of what it means to be human, what matters most, what society values, and how organizations can add real benefit without causing harm.

Leaders who embrace the New Normal 2.0 will find more power in the questions they ask than in the answers they provide. They will challenge their assumptions, surrender their conceits, rethink their principles, raise their sights, and push others to do the same. As Gary Hamel says in What Matters Now, “We know broadly what must be done to create organizations that are fit for the future. The only question is, ‘Who’s going to lead and who’s going to follow?’ How you answer that question matters most of all.”

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“Yesterday’s industrial era model of growth is on its last tired legs today… What powered prosperity in the twentieth century won’t – and can’t – power prosperity in the twenty-first… The real threat to capitalism isn’t unfettered financial cunning. It is, instead, the inability (or unwillingness) of executives to confront the changing expectations of their stakeholders about the role of business in society.”

– Umair Hague, Director Havas Media Lab.