We are emotional creatures before we are rational creatures. Faced with the uncertainty, upheaval and loss of the past year, we’ve all witnessed how our limbic system takes over in the blink of an eye. We make emotional decisions in a mere 85 milliseconds whereas our more rational frontal cortex takes 3 times longer to respond. We shut down when we are in a fear state. We fall back on what’s safe.

But in this moment, it is a bad biological trick because as leaders it is critical that we are open to new ideas and receptive to innovative solutions. Downturns are challenging but can be an occasion for bold moves, a catalyst for change. GM launched after the financial panic of 1907. Burger King served its first burger during a recession in 1954, and Uber and Airbnb launched during the 2007-2009 global financial crisis.

According to our July pulse, 83% of CxOs predict that the current economic recovery will be long and difficult. As leaders, we need to look at this period of unprecedented disruption and take action to build trust with our teams so our people feel safe, opening themselves to new ideas and new ways to reshape businesses for a better world.

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83% of CxOs predict that the current economic recovery will be long and difficult.

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Four ways to drive bold change

1. Connect to build trust

Our recent research found that workers care about two things above everything else—confidence in their company’s ability to navigate the future and a leadership team that is focused on compassion and the care of its people. The bottom line—your workforce is looking to trust you. And trust matters. When it comes to engaging people in change, trust in leadership and other emotion-related drivers influence up to 60 percent of performance improvement in largescale transformations.

The most successful leaders I see are constantly sharing their North Star and explaining how everyone in the company plays a role in delivering on that mission. And listening and responding are just as important as talking and writing. Slack, Teams, Zoom and other feedback and collaboration technologies have made it infinitely easier for modern leaders who want to engage in a dialogue with their people.

Communications will be meaningless if your words and actions don’t support your organization’s purpose and values—particularly in today’s tough times. Even the most committed leaders sometimes need to make difficult decisions. Then it becomes a matter of how you treat people. Are you transparent? Are you exploring new solutions inside and outside your organization? For example, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, several companies took bold, collective action to launch People + Work Connect, an analytics-based platform, to connect organizations that need to reduce their workforces with organizations that need workers.

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2. Make yourself uncomfortable

Leaders need to step out of their comfort zone and get comfortable being uncomfortable. One of the best ways to do that is to surround yourself with people who think differently. If you’re not hanging out with someone who makes you cringe, who makes your brain hurt—because they are so unlike you—it’s time to start. Those diverse perspectives make you a better leader and make for a stronger business.

Henry Ford provided a great lesson for all leaders when he fired Lee Iacocca, Ford’s then-president, in 1978 because he wasn’t comfortable with his brash and unorthodox leadership style. “Sometimes you just don’t like somebody,” Ford famously said by way of explanation. Iacocca then went on to bring Chrysler back from bankruptcy and post record profits in only a few years.

Our recent research found that customers and workers today are demanding a new type of C-suite leader to engage their passion, principles and capabilities. Their expectation? Leaders who create teams that have a strong balance across analytics-led and human-centered skills. Bringing the two together intentionally to drive deeper levels of problem solving and value creation. Fifty-five percent of the organizations Accenture surveyed were reskilling members of the C-suite. Forty-six percent were bringing in new talent from outside their company.

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3. Double down on purpose

We’re going through massive turmoil with uneven economic growth and development. It’s a challenging time for all. But it’s also a time to be bold, think big, reach for the stars. It’s a time for leaders to be courageous and lean into initiatives that reflect their company’s purpose. Businesses need to be in the business of hope.

It’s a time to collaborate on solutions that are better for all of us now and into the future. At this year’s annual Joburg Indaba summit, Sir Mick Davis, global mining and energy expert and former CEO of Xstrata mining company, wanted to impress upon investors that while you need short-term earnings, you also have to think about reinvestment. What Sir Davis said of mining companies is a good reminder for most industries: “In the old days, the easiest way of improving your receipt from cut costs was to cut back on development because you don't actually see the negative aspects of cutting back on development until maybe a year or so later—but you can have an immediate impact on costs. If you under-invest in environmental impact, and safety, and stuff like that, again, it comes back to bite you at some time in the future, so invariably those things require investment.”

Although some might think this is bad timing, you can’t throw tomorrow’s growth out the window just because there’s a recession. That type of short-term thinking has led to the demise of numerous companies, including former mining giant, Rand Mines. There’s plenty of opportunities amidst the disruption. Now is not the time for a Kodak moment.

4. Embrace technology to drive growth

Over the years, I’ve repeatedly listened to executives who are proud of how little they spend on technology. They think of tech as a cost in a race to the bottom. But if we’ve learned anything in the past year, tech is actually what has allowed us to keep running throughout the pandemic: Zoom, online food ordering, eCommerce delivery from the ordinary to the obscure, and telemedicine. We could not have made it without them.

So when you look at your tech budget—which is one of the first things I’ve seen cut in a crisis— instead think about what might happen if you tripled it and married it to the ingenuity of your teams. Consider what you could really achieve. If you’re using tech in the right way, it frees up your people to get ahead of the cycles. It helps you forecast better.

Technology and data allow you to build a view of your world that helps you run scenarios and work probabilities. Let’s say consumer behavior is changing in X ways, how will you react? How do you bet on probabilities? How do you test assumptions about your business? One way is the use of digital twins, digital representations that allow companies to monitor, analyze and simulate their physical counterparts. Digital twins have a range of uses including speeding life-saving vaccine development, shrinking design and manufacturing cycles, and accelerating development of greener products.

The future is now

We are in uncharted territory, and companies need to remain responsive and responsible as they make plans to rebuild. It matters how you show up not only for your customers but also your people, and not just for this generation but the next generation.

The future is ours to define. It’s up to all of us to lead with courage. To be able to tell our children that we were part of the solution, rather than perpetuating the problem.

To bring our collective best to a world that has so many needs, we must have a leadership reset.

Read more about bold strategies.

Rachael Bartels

Lead – Function Networks and Programs

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