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Leadership Moments| Leading Through a Crisis

“What Are Some Old Assumptions That You Can Now Consider Throwing Away?”​

May 26, 2020


As companies move into new phases of dealing with the impact of the pandemic, Geoff Tudhope, a colleague of mine at Merryck & Co., shared smart insights about the need for senior leaders to focus more of their energies on big-picture questions about the future, and to delegate more of the short-term problems to others.

Q: What advice are you giving senior leaders as they navigate this crisis?

A. There are a lot of different frameworks out there, but the one I’ve been using describes the three phases for organizations as respond, recover and renew. Moving from recover to renew means adopting new ways of working with the customer. It’s about seizing the opportunity that has arisen as a result of the virus to almost have a clean sheet of paper and start again.

Because of the crisis, suddenly there are things that have now become possible that might have seemed impossible at the start of the year. In thinking about the renewal phase, what are some old assumptions that you can now consider throwing away? And if you start thinking that way, there might be other assumptions that now seem no longer relevant.

Another challenge for leaders is to dial down the impulse to problem-solve, and instead delegate that to others so the leader can operate at a higher altitude and spend time thinking through how the renewal phase is going to work. It’s one of the biggest challenges, but also the biggest opportunity. One strategy is to assign some leaders to deal with the here and now, and have others working on redesigning the company for the future.

“You’ve got to stay above the fray.”

For people in top leadership positions, it’s not their job to solve the problem. It’s their job to create the conditions that enable others to solve the problem. You’ve got to be thinking ahead, you’ve got to stay above the fray, and you’ve got to trust the people around you to take care of some of the short-term problems.

Q. Leading in a crisis involves a lot of balancing acts. How do you think about those?

A. If leaders were ever concerned in the past about saying “I don’t know” when they’re asked a question in a meeting, they don’t have to worry about showing that vulnerability in this environment, when there is so much unknown right now. Frankly, if you tried to act as if you knew exactly what to do, people probably wouldn’t believe you.

The role of the leader is to provide some certainty, even if the time horizon is relatively short-term, by being explicit about what people should pay attention to over the next few weeks or months. While there is a lot you can’t know at this time, any certainty you can provide will be calming for the organization.

Q. Let’s switch to more timeless themes. What are the most common issues that come up when you’re advising senior executives?

A. The CEO’s relationship with the board is an important one, particularly the relationship with the chairman – those roles are usually split in the UK, rather than being held by the same person. Managing the board is a lot of work, but I often remind the CEOs I work with that they don’t have a choice but to find ways to engage directors. After all, it is a kind of one-way street in that relationship; if it’s not working, the CEO will be out of a job, not the board. That may seem unfair, but that’s the way it is.

Q. So what are the common mistakes that CEOs make with their boards?

A. The biggest one I find is that they presume the directors are fully up to speed on what’s happening at the company. So the CEO has to continually remind them of the company’s simple plan, the three key things they’re trying to achieve, and the key industry dynamics that have to be navigated. You have to show the same slide every time you meet as a board. You’ve got to keep them informed in a way that’s easily digestible.

“You have to show the same slide every time you meet as a board.”

Especially for new CEOs, your license to operate will depend upon your relationship with the board. And building that relationship can require 20 percent or more of your time. You need to develop relationships with every board member. You’ve got to have touch points. And you’ve got to orchestrate the board meetings, because nobody is going to do it, even though others are supposed to. All that time preparing and with the board means you’ve got less time for everyone else.

Q. So how do you help people think through that time puzzle?

A. I share with them my own story. When I was growing up, my father worked at Shell, and rose through the ranks to become managing director. Many of his colleagues would often come to our house for meetings around the dining room table. Many years later, in the early stages of my own career, I was struck by how many of them passed away in their late sixties and early seventies. The same thing happened with my father. They had this all-consuming business career, but they seemed to burn themselves out and die at a relatively young age.

So I made two promises to myself. One was that I was going to step away from whatever senior executive job I had before I turned 50 to do something else. I also said that while I was working, my hours were going to be 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and never on weekends. And I was never going to travel more than 30 percent of the time.

“I’m ruthless on priorities and ruthless about delegation.”

Those rules caused me to do two things from the very beginning: to be clear about what was really important to achieve, and to make sure the people around me were really good because I was going to delegate a lot of work to them, and encourage them to do the same with their people. Those were the two things. I’m ruthless on priorities and ruthless about delegation.

Q. What were some other early influences for you?

A. We moved around a lot when I was young, and I went to six different schools around the world. Living in very different cultures made me quite resilient and adaptable. I also played a lot of sports, including field hockey, and I was a long jumper and shot-putter in track and field. From about the age of nine onward, I was the captain of every team I played on.

But schoolwork was extremely difficult for me, and I was not a strong student. That changed when I was about 13, and went to a boarding school in the UK. The school was organized into about 15 “houses,” with about 60 boys in each of them.

They had a horrible system of publishing your academic standing based on exam results, compared to the other students in your class, in a little directory every year. I had barely passed the entrance exam to get into the school, and so in my first year, because of their system of ranking by grades as well as alphabetical order, I showed up at the bottom of the list as an “F,” as if I was the thickest boy in the school. As soon as I saw that, I said to myself that I will never, ever be there again. And I went right up to the A stream over the next three years.

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