Today’s executives must manage crises they never expected
“This is not what I signed up for when I was promoted,” the China Regional President of a German machinery manufacturing firm told me. “In theory, I am doing the same strategic job as a few years ago. In practice, I juggle constant crises and firefighting.” He isn’t alone. The past few years drastically rewrote the job descriptions of mid- to high-level managers and executives at multinational firms. It’s not that their job requirements changed, or their targets, or their performance indicators, or their methods—those remained that same. That is exactly the problem, because the business environment where they operate has changed fundamentally, and probably forever.
Most managers today were selected, trained and prepared for a sunnier world of steady growth and deepening cooperation between continents and cultures. Many executives I coach painstakingly try to implement strategies, plans and targets created in pre-pandemic times. If that is not enough, they must work faster and more flexibly than previously, because crises create volatility. The firm still expects them to reduce waste, preserve market shares, increase sales, hire, retain, engage and motivate people. When they realise the futility of their previous methods in a new era, they ask me how to become resilient, crisis-proof leaders. There are, however, two important problems with the question itself.
First, personal traits like risk tolerance, flexibility and patience are practically impossible to change. Second, even if leaders could adjust their character overnight, they still couldn’t satisfy contradicting criteria. Critical times trap executives between quarrelling countries and conflicting goals. Firms try to preserve long-term value but also react to volatility. In theory, crisis-time leaders should be cautious and courageous, organised and disruptive, assertive and caring, patient and efficient. In practice, no individual manager qualifies for all these criteria. This dilemma has defined my work as an intercultural leadership coach since the start of the pandemic. We’ve managed to work through it with clients in both directions of my East-West focus: Western leaders doing business in or with Asia, and Asian leaders working with the West. In the coming months, I’d like to share some of the lessons we learned. Through a series of articles, videos, virtual and live events, I will share and discuss with participants some secrets of constructive leadership in an agitated and polarising world, especially when business should bridge continents, cultures and communities with conflicting values. I will focus on three behavioural challenges (in practical terms, daily dilemmas) that executives have shared with me recently.
A shift from long-term to short-term orientation: How can leaders run their business, motivate themselves and their teams and still spare some thought for the future when everything is urgent? A typical question: "How can I decide faster without making more mistakes?"
A shift from relationships to control: How can leaders get things done assertively without damaging the trust that took years, sometimes decades to develop with colleagues, clients, prospects, suppliers, government officials and more? A typical question: "How can I create a sense of urgency without panic?"
A shift from a local to a global mindset: As investment, assets and people escape from high-pressure locations to more promising pastures, how can leaders with deep familiarity and connections in one place adapt to another? A typical question: "Will headquarters, regional centres and local branches ever agree on what to do next?" To keep our focus on practical applications in daily leadership work, I will illustrate problems and solutions on two main case studies: adapting to China’s ‘zero-COVID’ policy and disruptions caused by the war in Ukraine. Of course, comments and requests will help us widen our scope to other unexpected situations in the world that force leaders to become more comfortable with crisis-time leadership. Trust me, this skillset is something we shall need for quite a few years to come.
Join my upcoming free webinar 'Managing businesses in crises that nobody wanted or expected', where we look at the same topic in the form of an interactive discussion: CLICK HERE TO REGISTER.