"What do you think?"


Churchill’s words now have special resonance. Someone in a recent Roundtable I was involved in brought them into the conversation - and sparked a few thoughts and questions. The discussion explored how the pandemic has given new depth and definition to some old-established ideas, bringing a particularly sharp focus on leadership. And on leaders.

The world was becoming increasingly binary: ‘identity’ politics, statement versus statement, and ‘strong man at the top’ clichés were all driving a zero-sum game mentality. But that simplistic attitude has been exposed as inadequate for the real complexities that face us. Are the true leaders emerging now showing the truth of Ginny Rometti’s assertion that “value is not in what you know, but in what you share”.

‘Generosity scenes’ are a traditional feature in leadership narratives. Embracing the need to share is a vital characteristic of great leaders. It shows long-term vision. It also shows personal as well as emotional intelligence. And that you are prepared to take risks for a better result.

Among the many responses to the coronavirus epidemic, the most striking are those that have come about through collaboration. Some have been interesting for the partnerships across sectors (Formula 1 teams bringing their expertise to a completely new sphere, for example) but none quite as remarkable as those between competitors. For example, Canon, Toyota and Honda waiving their IP rights on all technology that might be garnered to find a treatment for the virus. The commercial value of the jealously-guarded capability is enormous, yet those leaders were prepared to take bold action for an outcome of far greater, and different, value. That is a rare, and vital, form of courage that should inspire others.

What might this mean in the 'next normal' (apologies - I dislike that phrase too)? It illustrates a route towards prosperity and sustainability, that is not only desirable but also available. Brand and organisations are, at their best, communities. They should work in every stakeholder's interest. But that can't happen by itself, or just because it sounds nice.

It needs a visionary presence, one that is capable of seeing different – sometimes contradictory – perspectives and of developing a compelling strategy. Sometimes, that calls for recognising potential synergies rather than differences and building consensus around that response.

Peter Drucker wrote that “the greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence itself, but to act with yesterday’s logic”. The post-COVID world has not yet formed, but it cannot be the world in which yesterday’s logic applies.

Organisations and their leaders, both public and private, are being faced with problems for which their experience has not prepared them. Their responses need to be honest, creative and generous. Honest, to enable true insight into the conditions around them and their ability to act. Creative, to step outside their zones of comfort and control. Generous, to welcome the contributions of others.

It all adds up to what Plato called the first of all human qualities: “courage, because it is the quality that guarantees the others”.

In all the excitement that's created around The Deal, who wants to think about the "But what if...?" questions. We've worked on many M&A projects, on all sides of the table, and we might come back to that another time. But a recent conversation with a client highlighted the problems created when it all falls through.

It seems particularly relevant now, with so much attention focusing now on M&A as a way towards economic recovery (and we know of at least a couple of sectors in which organisations are publicly admitting to being 'in play' as they search for partners, or acquirers). As a part of that developing client conversation, we have created a quick check-list of actions - not only in this one specific instance, but more as a 'keep in mind' for anyone considering their own version of a deal.

1. Ensure that the M or A is understood to be one option within your strategy. If people feel that the whole future of the organisation rests on this deal, they will feel less than optimistic if doesn't come through. Call it scenario planning, if you like, but strategy is ultimately about making choices and potential deals are just another of those.

2. Actively work on a "life as a singleton" strategy. M&As can be exciting (largely depending on which side of the deal you're on) but always energy- and time-consuming. If the deal fails to materialise, you'll need to pick up the pace and the optimism for your own vision. Immediately. One business we know gave its leadership team 24 hours to "get over it" and to ensure that all their teams were fully engaged in their own new strategy. If you don't believe in your own business, why should someone else?

3. Own the narrative. We've worked with two clients who were to be the acquired rather than the acquirer. One had hunkered down, in denial and defensive; the other both combative and positive. Neither deal worked out, but of the two clients, the latter recovered quickly, retained its key people and gained new admiration.

4. Communicate like never before. We'd say the same throughout the entire M&A process, but it's critical if the plan doesn't come off. Be open, be consistent and be accessible. Share your enthusiasm for the future that's opened

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Updated: Mar 4


..and the life of the candle will not be shortened". I haven't discovered Buddhism, but this thought occurred to me while listening to a panel discussion earlier this week. The topic was ESG, but the principle is universal - and the mistakes alluded to seemingly eternally repetitive.

"Joined-up thinking" might be another way to frame the thought. The point being made was that ESG can't be allowed to become the latest in a series of unfortunate vertically-separated initiatives in an organisation. But the signs are that it might already be happening, that far from learning from history, business leaders are repeating them.

I know of one global CEO of a business who, on a recent Teams call with the leadership team to discuss their need for "an ESG strategy" asked "Are we sure this is not just another fad?" There's commitment for you (not to mention motivation for the person charged with developing said strategy).

Back in the early days of CSR reporting, we worked with a number of people with that specialist knowledge and those initials in their job title. And who were finding that their closest relationships were with their counterparts in other - sometimes competing - businesses. The obvious inference from that was that 'CSR' thinking had not been allowed to inform the entire business: it was vertically separated, when it should have been horizontally integrated.

It's been happening with 'values' for as long as they've been around. Organisations put them on their meeting room walls and on their website, but not into their day-to-day decisions and reporting.

We can see the same with 'purpose' now. Someone in that panel discussion declared that "purpose has been hijacked by marketing departments", which made a few audience members bristle. I disagree with that thought: if purpose has been hijacked by anyone, it's by poor leaders who view it in much the same way as businesses used to think about Yellow Pages. "My competitors are in there, so I'd better be in there too." And they allow it to become seen as another marketing tactic. Which undermines it, and creates a downward spiral of perceived value.

Let's not torture the analogy, but those leaders who understand ESG/their strategy/values/purpose fully demonstrate that by using that candle to light everything else within their organisation. Those who don't tend to find themselves in the darkness.

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