We are at the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve seen industries like hospitality and tourism decline, businesses having to change to accommodate social distancing, while new companies continue to launch. It’s a time of crisis, no doubt, but it’s also a time of choice and a time to embrace innovation.  

The Great Pause 

You’ve likely heard the term “the great pause” in reference to the pandemic. It refers to our response at its inception. All of sudden and without much notice, the economy was put on pause with restrictions by governments at every level. That didn’t happen with the Spanish flu outbreak a century before. Foreign Policy reports that while “public places of amusement” were shuttered, work and business were little affected overall. Until the coronavirus, we didn’t have a lockdown in a modern society.  

But the great pause also refers to our professional and personal lives during this time. Whether we have more time on our hands because we’ve lost jobs, are no longer commuting or simply have fewer social engagements, we’ve all likely spent some time over the past year evaluating our place in the world and what it means. This goes for businesses as well.  

There have been so many shifts over the past year. Companies that previously manufactured airline parts which are no longer needed switched gears to producing parts for ventilators. Leaders were faced with situations that perhaps they knew haven’t been working for a while but they didn’t have time to sort out until now. Or, they had to rethink their business model because it no longer worked for consumers. For example, restaurants who could no longer serve customers in their dining rooms pivoted to providing meal kits for takeout or delivery.  

Related: The Pandemic is Encouraging Entrepreneurship 

Leaders aren’t Prepared 

Many of my executive coaching clients tell me that they do not feel prepared for all of the changes that have been thrown at them over the past year. Leaders have been asked to provide answers to questions they don’t necessarily have the answers to in regards to the pandemic and racial equity.  

In a McKinsey survey of more than 200 organizations across industries, more than 90-percent of executives said they expect the fallout from COVID-19 to fundamentally change the way they do business over the next five years, with almost as many asserting that the crisis will have a lasting impact on their customers’ needs.  

More than three-quarters also agreed that the crisis will create significant new opportunities for growth. However, that doesn’t mean those opportunities will be capitalized on. Fewer than 30-percent of the same executives feel confident that they are prepared to address the changes they see coming. The survey also revealed that innovation is being deprioritized as companies work through the crisis and focus on short-term issues.  

So, how can leaders continue to embrace innovation during times of strife? Here are five ways. 

  1. Have a curious mindset.  

Leaders should come to the table curious. That means fostering an environment of a blank slate where team members are constantly brainstorming and pushing back, everyone is asking questions, and no ideas are bad. Leaders should seek out diverse opinions and approaches during this time. It’s no longer enough to “think outside of the box,” now, we must expand the box or get out of it completely. 

With budgets being slashed, now may not seem like the best time to invest in team building, but a virtual experience could help get the creative juices flowing within your team. Whether it’s a virtual escape roomcooking class or comedy improv lesson, connecting with your team virtually could help break down barriers and increase communication. 

2. Be future oriented. 

Leaders are being forced to cut costs, drive productivity and implement new safety measures right now. Future innovation may seem like something that can be easily pushed to the bottom of the to do list, but leaders must commit to it. I recommend blocking out time on your schedule each week to work on future opportunities for your business. 

It can be a huge balancing act to focus on your current endeavors while staying open to opportunities, but it’s important for leaders to have a future orientation. That’s the practice of looking ahead and the realization that the future isn’t written. Those with a future orientation believe they can write their own future. Leaders who work on their current business at the same time as the direction that business is headed – their future business – will see success. The pandemic has definitely taught us that you can’t just put your head down and live in the present moment.  

3. Be flexible. 

Another attribute of good leadership during this crisis is flexibility. Leaders must foster and encourage openness, flexibility and willingness to try something that might sound at first absolutely absurd.  

Before the pandemic, companies may have regarded the investment of time and resources to experiment with remote-work as too costly. But the crisis forced many leaders to figure it out and now, we have a better understanding of the pros and cons of working from home. Harvard research shows that workers who prefer to work from home may find increased productivity, reduced commute time, and a lower quit rate because they are overall happier. Others are struggling with work-life balance while working from home.  

4. Be vulnerable.  

There are a lot of strengths in being authentic and truthful with your team, and it’s a leadership quality to be able to honestly say “I don’t know.” However, you can instill confidence in your team even when you are being vulnerable.  

If you are coming from a grounded place and are making solid decisions, all you can do is do your best. Look at the data to back your moves, but remain open and agile. After all, there could be another pivot coming your way.  

5. Be open to reinventing yourself.  

What made a company successful historically may no longer be possible during or after this crisis, so we must always be open to change. That’s always been the case with businesses with longevity.  

IBM is a textbook example of a company that has innovated over the years. The company launched in 1911 as the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company and focused on products such as accounting and calculating machines. The first calculator that could directly subtract was released in 1928. From calculators, IBM moved to computers. The first device we would recognize as a modern computer filled a small room. The U.S. Navy used it to calculate gun trajectories on its ships.  

IBM introduced the Personal Computer (aka “PC”) in the 1980s as one of the first computers intended for consumer use. Although IBM has shifted away from hardware to business services after selling its personal computing division to Lenovo in 2005, it continues to invest heavily in innovation. Their supercomputer research arm continues to produce some of the most powerful machines in the world. 

More than 100 years later, the building blocks of IBM are still evident. The core of who they are is still present today; it’s just manifesting in a different way in the marketplace.  

Coaching for Improvement 

“Everyone needs a coach. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a basketball player, a tennis player, a gymnast or a bridge player. We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.” ~ Bill Gates 

Leaders often come to JMA because something isn’t working in their lives, and our coaches help them diversify their way of thinking. The executive coaching clients I’m working with now know they need to innovate to stay relevant during this crisis. 

For example, Allison (not her real name) is an executive who has recently pivoted in her career so that she can diversify her skills and take them to a new level. Allison is fast. She’s a fast thinker, a fast talker, a fast do-er. As we work on diversification of thoughts, we’ve also been working on going at half speed. That means Allison is tasked with walking the halls half-speed, doing the dishes half speed, even paying more attention to her environment while driving. After a few weeks of this exercise, she told me, “Because I’m going at a slower pace now, I look around at people going really fast. They don’t look busy or important, which is what I always thought before. Now I think they look harried and disorganized.”  

We’re working on taking this “half-pace” notice to her business decisions as well. The goal is to be less impulsive, more thoughtful, deliberate and discerning about the business decisions she makes.  

Emerge as an Innovation Leader 

In 2015, McKinsey released the Eight Essentials of Innovation, which is a multiyear study of more than 2,500 executives in over 300 companies. It revealed there are eight essential attributes that are present at every big company that’s a high performer in innovation. They are: 

  1. Aspire 
  2. Choose 
  3. Discover 
  4. Evolve 
  5. Accelerate 
  6. Scale 
  7. Extend 
  8. Mobilize 

Mastering these essentials is more important than ever now, as companies start to come out of the crisis. And while, “Aspire” and “Choose” top the list during economic stability, “Discover” and “Evolve” become more important during times of crisis:  

  • Discover: It’s important for companies to invest in discovering what matters to customers now and understanding the impact those changing needs will have on their business.   
  • Evolve: Think of this time as your company’s moment to evolve. The thinking of “the way things are done” is being replaced with “the new way we do things.” 

Crises are like adrenaline for innovation and can assist in knocking down barriers in business. If you could use an executive coach’s help as you navigate these uncertain times, let us help you unlock your potential.  

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