Organizations are working to ensure they survive and even thrive in very challenging times. Historically, there has been great opportunity in times of crisis or a recession. Disney, General Electric, IBM, and Microsoft are a few household names launched during troubled economic times. Many well-known and successful startups such as Instagram, Uber, and Venmo began after the 2008 recession. In addition, the foundation of our economy is on more solid ground than it was in 2008 before the crash. 

Most organizations have an opportunity to explore ways to innovate and grow. Where to start?  

Leadership. 

Throughout these efforts, people-centric leadership will be a useful core principle for the entire C-suite. Your transformation efforts are truly a shared mission with all levels of leaders and employees regardless of your industry or the size of your organization. 

Here are four strategies to help you navigate your business transformation.

1. Put people first. Do it as a moral imperative.

Leaders have the responsibility—and must find the courage—to guide their organizations through this inordinately complex time. 

Leaders would benefit from establishing a “people-first culture” that includes crystal clear and frequent communications while ensuring everyone has a “shared purpose,” recommends Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter from Harvard Business School.  

Reinforcing, or establishing, a culture of trust is also paramount. Dov Seidman, chairman of the How Institute and LRN, was quoted recently in The New York Times: “Great leaders trust people with the truth. And they make hard decisions guided by values and principles, not just politics, popularity or short-term profits.” Seidman defines four pillars of moral leadership: “Be driven by purpose; inspire and elevate others; be animated by values and principles such as courage and patience; and keep building moral muscle by wrestling with the questions of right and wrong, fairness and justice, what serves others and what doesn’t.” 

In addition, engage in data-informed decision-making, encourage experimentation, take informed risks, be curious, be transparent, and use smart restraint regarding decisions such as when to return to a physical workplace.

2. Focus your business and people strategies within your new context and constraints. Start fresh.  

To reimagine requires agility, which is all about acceleration, flexibility, adaptability, and responsiveness—and it couldn’t be more essential in these circumstances. 

Transformational business strategies can be inspired by new entrants into your market, by adjacent or altogether new markets, and through partnerships, mergers, or acquisitions. To increase your chances of success, involve employees in both clarifying the problem (for example, “What must we do for our customers, and how do we do it in the best possible way?”) and brainstorming solutions. A dual approach of strengthening the core business plus looking for new opportunities is one way to harness disruptive change.

Seek input from all levels of management and employees, including those in subsidiaries or acquired parts of the business. This will allow you to draw from the expertise and creativity of your entire organization, while also ensuring greater buy-in and commitment for the chosen direction. Also, tap into advice from other stakeholders—customers, partners, and suppliers—for richer information to inform your decisions. You can accelerate your decisions by capitalizing on the 80/20 rule.

In reimagining your business, make decisions on the business strategy while simultaneously designing your people strategy to achieve those business goals. Here are some questions to consider: 

  • Are all levels of leaders and managers demonstrating they genuinely care about the physical and mental health of employees, customers, suppliers, and the community?
  • What parts of the business strategy continue to make sense? What new and innovative strategies are needed to drive growth? 
  • What is the compelling higher purpose for which people will be working?
  • How will the execution of the work be different? Are operational changes needed?
  • What people-strategy changes are needed to accelerate your transformation? Consider components such as: skills assessments and capability building; aligning talent to tasks; employee engagement; performance management modifications; compensation adjustments; work and personal-life policies; flexible and virtual work arrangements; well-being programs; and mental health services.
  • Are changes in the culture needed as the strategy changes, in areas such as: risk-taking, communication transparency, data-informed decision-making, cross-group collaboration, agility, learning, inclusion, and belonging? What actions are needed to ensure racial equity?
  • What and who can accelerate or inhibit the change, and what actions are needed in response?

3. Stay connected with your people’s needs. Keep an eye on their engagement, belonging, and what they need for success. 

Engaged employees are the key to not just surviving the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest, but also helping transform the business and people strategies in order to thrive. 

Seeking and acting on both informal and formal feedback frequently throughout your transformation will help test for understanding, alignment, and confidence throughout the change process. Maintaining or improving levels of employee involvement and employee engagement are fundamental to transformation. Glint defines employee engagement as “the degree to which employees invest their cognitive, emotional, and behavioral energies toward positive organizational outcomes.” 

Belonging has always been a top driver of happiness and engagement, and is fostered through connection and a shared sense of purpose. Glint has pooled more than 5 million data points from pulse surveys conducted from March to June of 2020, and the influence of belonging on employee engagement has jumped 12%, with about three-quarters of organizations seeing increases in belonging scores. A focus on belonging extends to improvements in both well-being and performance.

Glint’s research also shows employees feel positive and grateful about how their organization is handling the COVID-19 crisis, yet comments on the topics of staffing, burnout, and workload have more than doubled. 

Also, culture has replaced career opportunities as the most common topic in comments on the survey item “I feel a sense of belonging.” 

Annual, or less frequent, employee engagement surveys are insufficient in these swiftly changing times. Agile pulse surveys are less cumbersome and encourage more conversations with managers and among teams. Pulse surveys provide real-time insight so clear actions can be taken, strategies can be tested, and direction adjusted as needed. Many people-centric organizations are now pulsing every four to six weeks to ensure they are on top of people’s needs, which are changing more rapidly than before, and to nudge managers to have more frequent conversations with their people.

4. Follow through with clear communications and guidelines. Don’t micromanage—help people prioritize, offer support, and encourage their learning and growth.

To ensure success of your business transformation, once you have collected input from across disciplines and levels in the organization to inform your strategy and people decisions, move quickly to execution by providing clear, concise, and compelling communications on three points: 

  • who was involved in determining the changes needed  
  • the reasons for the changes and the outcomes anticipated
  • the scheduled rollout of changes 

Then empower people to make decisions at the appropriate levels and be agile so you can quickly pivot when an approach is not working.

One caveat is offered here: take the micromanagement out of change management. Even before COVID-19, the need for agility most often superseded the potential benefits of a slow rollout of organizational change. Plus, people are more adaptable than they are often given credit for. As we have seen in this current situation, employees have been exceptionally resilient and have exhibited a high tolerance for ambiguity. With the appropriate levels of involvement and communications, rapid changes in this context will be accepted and will have the best chance of propelling the organization toward a successful future. 

Change and learning go hand in hand. Professor Carol Dweck from Stanford University has documented the many benefits of organizations orienting toward a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset to enhance empowerment and commitment. Start by establishing learning as a priority, share resources to help employees navigate change, and create space for innovation. Glint’s research shows that 97% of employees want to continue or expand their current allotted time for learning.

In a risk-taking and innovative environment, there will be failures. Rewarding effort and lessons learned reinforces an openness to learning, experimentation, and positive change. Share failures openly to encourage continued innovation and increase the collective understanding of the problem(s) at hand.

Final thoughts

This time in history is overwhelming, uncertain, and simultaneously hopeful. 

True business transformations are required. Be agile in your transformation. Trust that your employees are both resilient and can offer innovative solutions. 

Being people-centric means staying in touch with employees frequently, asking what they need, enhancing their feelings of belonging, helping with prioritization, and providing resources and technology to support productivity and collaboration.

Reimagining the business fundamentally depends on inclusive, moral, and inspirational leadership. Leaders who embrace these qualities and take data-informed, employee-involved actions will lead the organizations that emerge from these crises with the brightest and most sustainable future. 

For more tips and resources, download the Reimagining Business Strategy Toolkit.