LEADing Change post-Brexit

Since Brexit, change is rippling through our political systems, financial markets and society. How can businesses here in Gloucestershire focus on the priorities, principles and practical steps that deliver positive change in uncertain times?

Stewart Barnes of QuoLux highlights the importance of recognising the emotional process of change (blue in the graphic), and offers guidance on how business leaders could match their actions and priorities (orange in the graphic) with the ‘change curve’.

Quolux Graphic

He says, “As business leaders we can’t influence the world stage, but we can and must respond to the impacts of change then proactively lead change in the context of our own companies. It’s important to keep an eye on external factors and then step back into the business and make sense of it for your people.”

Stage 1:
Emotion: The shock of the public’s decision to leave the EU reverberated widely on the morning of 24 June, even among those on the winning side of the referendum.

Leadership: There’s nothing the business leader can do at this stage other than provide reassurance. Give people a snapshot of the business’s strength and remind them of your existing plans. Keep it brief, no one is really listening, they’re all too busy trying to process the news of what the change means to them.

Stage 2:
Emotion: Denial is common after the shock of unexpected change, and there was much talk of ‘it may never happen’ amid calls for a second referendum.

Leadership: Provide a little more reassurance encouraging people to keep calm and allow some time for adjustment. For example, point out how well the order book is looking for the next few months or new products already under development. Some leaders will have sent a short letter to all staff, others may have given a few words of reassurance in a company meeting.

There was evidence of this leadership stance among some high profile names; German Chancellor Angela Merkel told everyone to keep calm and let the Brits have time to decide when to invoke Article 50, and Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England was quick to try and reassure the markets with a £250bn fund.

Stage 3:
Emotion: As the numbness of shock wears off, more heightened emotional reactions often take hold. For some this is elation and enthusiasm for the result they’ve wished for, while for others there’s great anger at the outcome. We saw protests in London and elsewhere, angry exchanges on our TV screens, and animated streams of social media interactions whilst others were happy with the decision.

Leadership: Within the business, it’s time to dissipate the height of negative emotions with positivity. Every group will have some positive, open minded and super-loyal people (referred to as the top 20%) and some who are the exact opposite, moaners and stirrers (the bottom 20%). Focus your time and energy on the top 20% with a sense of positivity relating to general business conditions. The mid 60% will follow the top 20% as they want the same attention.

Now’s also the time to prepare for a drop in confidence among your teams. That’s a natural response to uncertainty and requires empathy from the leader.

Stage 4:
Emotion: As the days, weeks and months progress, a sense of realisation dawns and the height of emotion starts to ebb away. Change is going to happen, but we’re not sure what that means for us yet. There are more questions than answers, which creates uncertainty.

Leadership: Now, more than ever, it’s time to stick to the plan – the business plan that’s been working and has been carefully devised to help you achieve your vision. Don’t lose sight of what you’re working towards but link this to what staff can effect - the tasks they do each and every day.

Stage 5:
Emotion: As uncertainty affects confidence levels, it can lead to a state of depression or despondency among those who voted to remain in the EU. Equally, those who achieved the outcome they wanted may feel harangued and battered by having to defend their point of view.

Leadership: Keep your support focused on the top 20% in your team; the middle 60% will notice this and be more likely to follow their lead, rather than get pulled further down into the doom-and-gloom of the bottom 20%.

Stage 6:
Emotion: Basically, morale has hit rock bottom. People have exhausted themselves fighting the inevitability of change. The twists and turns of political resignations mean there is little left that surprises anyone, and it’s time to let go of the past reality.

Leadership: Look forward. How might you turn the ‘threat’ of change into opportunities for your business? Does the lower cost of exports from a weaker pound make you more competitive overseas? Do you have excess cash to invest while others are cutting back? Consider the strategies and systems you could introduce – or strengthen – to establish an innovative culture where adapting to future changes in markets or regulations becomes part of your DNA.

Stage 7:
Emotion: While the political process of leaving the EU begins to unfold, so too does our personal acceptance that change is going to happen. Negotiations on a national and international stage will present ‘new versions’ of the future for the UK and its citizens. Individuals will begin to re-assess how they feel about this new reality, testing out a new relationship between ‘me’ and ‘everyone else’.

Leadership: Look out for the people in your team who are beginning to see that the new dawn is beneficial; recognise, acknowledge and share their initiatives to adapt, whether that’s a great idea for a hot new lead, how to make a small improvement to a best-selling product, or research on a potential new market to exploit.

Stage 8:
Emotion: The picture is becoming clearer. Time is helping people to regain perspective, and to make sense of what change might mean for themselves, their families, friends and communities. We’re establishing a sense of ourselves in the new normal.

Leadership: Focus on reinforcing positive change, recognising and celebrating successes within your team. Remind staff of the vision, and whether you’ve had cause to adapt your strategy in pursuit of this vision or not, remind people what the current plan is. And crucially, help your people to see what their role is in delivering the plan. By now, the mid 60% are following the top 20% into the brave new world.

Stage 9:
Emotion: What referendum? Life has moved on. While the world is never free from trouble, Brexit will be resolved and we’ll have found reasons to be cheerful or concerned (ahead of the next wave of change).

Leadership: The optimism you’ve been garnering is being rewarded with success. Celebrate with your team.

Leading change is one of the greatest challenges facing any business leader. These insights will help you to lead more effectively.

This is the first of six articles that are appearing on www.southwestbusiness.co.uk and in the Gloucester Citizen and Gloucestershire Echo during the next two months – see /campaigns/brexit to sign up for your free copy of the Change Curve and obtain your free gift.

QuoLux sponsors the Lifetime Achievement category in the Gloucestershire Echo and Gloucester Citizen Business Awards.

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