Welcome to another new year. Many of us are in that optimistic, ambitious time of year when we plan to be more sporty, drink less wine, and generally treat ourselves and others better. Whether we make actual resolutions or just heartfelt best efforts to improve, it’s common to try to look back at last year and find ways to make this year different – and better. That’s equally true for companies, as many leadership teams will review targets and strategies and reassess what didn’t work in the past and why the new year is an opportunity for change. Or maybe not. Because lately, I have been struck by the number of conversations I have had where companies are anticipating not a lot of change, but more of the same. Even in the last quarter of 2023, some clients were verbalising that they anticipated no real shift in business conditions before 2025. And by ‘no real shift,’ they meant more constant, unpredictable uncertainty. So how do you plan for that?
Will 2024 be about resiliency more than reinvention?
There could be a number of reasons for this attitude. Some of the biggest challenges facing organisations the last few years have been global, systemic shifts that are far larger than any one company. The pandemic had a short term and radical shakeup of how we do business, followed by ongoing longer-term shifts in everything from supply chain disruption to inflation to increased remote work arrangements. That was followed by the war in Ukraine, and now the Israel-Gaza war.1 The effect of all this continuous, unpredictable, uncontrollable change is for companies to simply take a position of accepting instability as the new certainty. Instead of shaking things up internally and trying new tactics, the strategy for this year seems to try to stabilize within a rocky world order. Resilience, not revolution is the goal of most teams right now.
Prepare for the inevitable impact on your business.
While the pandemic impacted most companies immediately and significantly, events like Ukraine did not. This isn’t to say that it didn’t do so eventually, but unlike the pandemic, many leaders weren’t called on to react to the situation as urgently. But many did have to make choices, and big ones, eventually. For some, this meant they needed to cease doing business in Russia. For others, this meant supply chain disruptions they didn’t foresee. And almost always, frank conversations among diverse teams as they navigated not only the strategy, but the dialogue around the strategy, in the C-suite. I know some leadership teams with diverse, global teams found themselves struggling to agree on business decisions because no decision felt apolitical. And because the Ukraine situation didn’t have the immediate impact on companies outside the region the way that Covid did, these difficult conversations were both urgent and awkward in many cases. And it’s easy to imagine that conversations regarding the Israel-Hamas war are even more difficult.
Part of the challenge is simple inexperience – and not because of lack of preparation, but lack of necessity. These kinds of conversations didn’t happen in the C-suite in the past. Not unlike a dinner party, politics and religion were strictly off limits as inappropriate and unnecessary. As a recent Forbes article stated, ‘[F]or most of history, an article about how company leaders should address a geopolitical human rights issue would be not just unnecessary, it would be perceived as absurd and presumptuous.’ No longer: as I have written in the past, it is not only an expectation but an obligation of companies to take public views on a range of geopolitical events and social awareness issues that they never would have been expected to weigh in on the past. And it goes beyond just having a view and making a commitment to support a group: these commitments have bottom-line, financially impactful consequences. For leadership teams to make those decisions together, quickly and correctly, they can’t be having critical conversations for the first time, in crisis mode.
I encourage leadership teams to speak now, as soon as possible, about the uncertainty of the year ahead. Find ways to have thoughtful, empathetic dialogue about the difficult times we are in. Prepare yourself for unexpected conversations that are unlike ones you have had in the past. Make no assumptions regarding points of view. When – not if – the inevitable but unforeseeable changes of this year impact your business decisions, you don’t want to just be learning the personal and political views of your colleagues. Trust will be key because resilience means relying on those relationships and the judgement of others.
Talk about today’s issues before they become tomorrow’s problems.
The power of resiliency will be key this year. As humans, we are built to resist change. The American phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’, isn’t about laziness, it’s about the comfort of predictability. As a psychologist, I can’t abide by the phrase that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome – it’s a lot more complicated — but I understand it. Humans find comfort – ‘sanity’ — in that doing the same thing will lead to the same outcome. We are hard-wired to hunt in areas where food is plentiful (and can’t eat us first), to take shelter in places that have protected before, to build and maintain relationships that have benefitted us in the past. We are a slow, small, furless animal by most standards, and we seek the stability of good habits and reliable outcomes at all cost. The amygdala responds to change as it does to any threat – fight or flight is trigged both by large bears and unplanned Zoom calls (though to different proportions). So the last few years have been more than just a little unsettling – it disrupts our sense of the world on physical, emotional, and neurochemical levels. Resiliency is essentially a skill set we build, a set of reactions and decisions when things don’t happen as expected. Something will break, and teams will have to fix it. Start talking now.
1 I wish to clarify to my readers that as an American living and working in London I am using the terms ‘Israel-Gaza war’ (as does the BBC) and ‘Israel-Hamas war’ (as does the Wall Street Journal) interchangeably. I am sensitive to the difference and do not wish to imply any political view in the context of this article.
In terms of my background and expertise, I have spent my entire career working as a trusted advisor to senior leaders wanting to improve the effectiveness of themselves, their teams and their companies. Prior to starting my own consulting firm, I led the global executive assessment and development team for Cisco. Earlier in my career I held leadership roles with RHR International, PepsiCo, Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School and the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.