The New Normal Is Now

April 16, 2020
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Leading Transformational Change

As we enter a middle phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, our clients are rapidly moving from shock and crisis to thinking about a world that will be changed for the foreseeable future. There is a good reason to do so. As much of the industrialized world remains in quarantine, we are all changing the way that we work and live in real time. These changes will lead to new, adaptive, and resilient behavior patterns that are likely to drive profound shifts in economic activity and value. Our clients are already anticipating the leadership actions that they will take as they guide their organizations back to “full opening” in this new normal.

While we know that consumer behavior and buying patterns are shifting in response to unprecedented conditions, this event is of such magnitude, duration, and impact that some may never shift back to where they previously were. Different industries are experiencing different amounts and degrees of change; some have clarity on what the future holds, while for others, the stress of change is compounded by an unprecedented lack of business visibility. We find utility in understanding the current economy—and our clients—through a taxonomy of three general business scenarios:

  1. Crisis mode. Those facing existential crises include travel/entertainment, retailers with smaller online presence, transportation, and oil and gas—among others. Many have little flex in their business models and no slack in their balance sheets.
  2. Weathering the storm and planning for an uncertain future. This category is the most common right now. Industries such as financial services represent this middle group, as do those whose core product or service will endure despite sea changes in modes of delivery or distribution. Leaders here are shifting moment-to-moment, recalibrating their focus as they respond to a crisis, deliver a strategic perspective to key stakeholders, and then help the team implement a new business model. Actions that previously did not occur the same day may now take place within the same hour.
  3. Capitalize on the “now.” Some are positioned to benefit from this crisis (think CPG food and videoconferencing as clear examples). These clients are in rapid growth, and in some ways seem like our clients who are in a crisis since they are marshaling all of their forces to deliver on today.

We encounter the first and the third categories in a “normal” economy. Many of our clients are skilled at capitalizing on opportunities; some have grown more adept at leading through crises than they would have preferred. In this new normal, weathering the storm is the scenario that brings new levels of volatility, requiring continual adaptation on the fly. Amidst this ongoing and high rate of change, our clients must build themselves a quiver of many options and an ambidextrous agility as they adjust in real time to lead the business, their people and teams, and themselves.

Our guidelines to help leaders navigate this period encompass all three of these aspects. To weather the storm and plan for an uncertain future, leaders must first ensure that they have what they need as human beings: energy, perspective, and flexibility. With this grounding, they can be emotionally available to their teams, understanding their needs and capitalizing on their diversity. This in turn affords the team the space to be innovative in leveraging the organization’s capabilities and building on them in new ways.

Leading self: Train like a marathon runner and practice emotional flexibility 


Train like a marathon runner

This time is a sprinting marathon; but you need the mindset of a long-distance runner. We are in month one of a three- to four-month training session, and we are entering the hardest part of our training. Knowing that this intense period will end is helpful so that you can sustain your intensity. Getting up every day and putting in your miles is a good metaphor to have in your mind. Taking care of nutritional needs is the most important aspect since sleep will be less available. Get creative with your short moments of recovery to ensure you still get the necessary amount to stay both focused and creative.

Practice emotional flexibility

Going from a crisis-planning mode to scenario-planning mode requires leaders to calm their minds and bodies down so that they can think clearly and creatively and engage their people with intentional impact. We know from brain research that humans cannot go from a crisis or “flight fight” mode to a creative/high-performing mode without first going to a recovery mode. And leaders need to be even more self-aware about when they need to shift their physiological states since they are traversing between modes with great frequency. Recovery practices (Mastering Oscillation: How Peak Performance in Sports and Business Are Related) have never been more important and need to be employed with greater frequency. Setting reminders before every meeting to consider a brief recovery moment (e.g., deep breathing to calm the autonomic nervous system) can help. Planning crisis meetings in the morning and creative brainstorming meetings in the afternoon can also help match thinking demands with the hormonal flow of cortisol and melatonin, the former to be employed for focusing and the latter for more expansive thinking.

Leading people: Understand human needs and leverage diversity


Understand the human need for sense-making

Almost all of us are working through a process called sensemaking. Technologists who study intelligent systems (reference) define it this way:

“Sensemaking is a motivated, continuous effort to understand connections (which can be among people, places, and events) in order to anticipate their trajectories and act effectively.”

As humans, we need a mental model or framework within which to fit new data points. Without this framework, we feel anxious, and we suffer information overload. Our most important activities as humans depend upon us having a framework that tells us what data to pay attention to, how to draw conclusions, and what to do about the implications of those conclusions.

Sensemaking—the work of developing those frameworks—takes a lot of effort. Team members may seem distracted or overwhelmed as they try to figure out what’s going on and what to do about it. The role of the leader, now more than ever, is to focus the enterprise on a very few values, priorities, and objectives. Leaders who meet their people’s human needs in times of uncertainty are those who provide structures and guideposts that enable people to simplify complexity and feel in control rather than overwhelmed by ambiguity. In parallel, they give people space and permission to sort through the meaning and implications of everything unprecedented.

Use your diversity at the right time and place

How to use your team as a leader has never been more important. For short-term crisis response planning and thinking, consider a smaller group of advisors (three to four) who are more like you than different. Bring in your divergent thinkers as you get close to considering implications for execution. The rationale for this is that you need to move fast and perfect cannot be the enemy of good since time is of the essence.

For the scenario planning, creative/innovative sessions, the opposite is true. Create slightly larger groups (seven to eight) with diverse thinkers at the table. Spend more time framing the issues and analyzing strategic options (Intentionality and Decision Making in the Senior Team). Create smaller forums of your best operational people as you get close to making a strategic call to pressure test execution risk.

Leading business: Unpack your strategic advantage and get the full value out of your battlefield innovations


Unpack your strategic advantage

Companies are a collection of capabilities. Organizations have deployed those capabilities in certain ways up until this moment; they now have the opportunity to understand new and innovative ways in which to create value with those same capabilities. All of us now are rising to the occasion as we encounter unprecedented needs at individual, group, and societal levels. Production lines that previously manufactured or assembled non-medical machinery or parts are now leveraged to create PPE, ventilators, and other frontline necessities. Teams who previously collaborated on meeting demand through brick-and-mortar retail outlets have mapped online demand to distribution network fulfillment in record times. As team members are furloughed, those remaining figure out how to solve problems and communicate in ways they had never envisioned.

The role of the leader now is to drive that unpacking to unleash the creativity of the organization by distilling its capabilities to their essence and asking, “What else could we do with these skills? What new needs can we meet by deploying our resources in different ways?”

Get the value of your battlefield innovations

Real-time innovations result in solutions that may endure for the short-term only. Temporary fixes with duct tape and good intentions get us through the hurricane, but are not built for the long run. What does have enduring value is the human capabilities that are established through these experiences of rising to the occasion. Leaders who have the future of the business in mind at all times will guide their teams to ensure that this value is captured and leveraged. For every solution that is generated during these stormy times, deputize a team member to write down three aspects of the situation: What unprecedented or challenging thing did we do? What were the capabilities that we displayed in order to do it? How, in more stable times, will we want to continue to leverage that organizational capability? This approach empowers the team in the future. Creating a track record like this will allow people to feel pride in their above-and-beyond achievements when there is once again room to pause and celebrate one another. It also enables the team to plan collaboratively around the new or evolved capabilities that strengthen the organization’s strategic advantage in the future.

These times test us as business leaders, as nation states, as communities, and as individuals. And these are also the moments where the intensity and demand of the challenge creates the environment for us to embrace our most creative and resilient selves.

Val Nellen
Valerie Nellen is a senior partner at RHR International. She works with client organizations to empower people to know themselves differently, capitalize on their unique traits, and create value by fostering meaning and optionality.
David Astorino
David Astorino is a senior partner and member of RHR International’s operating committee. For more than 20 years, he has been applying his expertise to complex client engagements, helping CEOs and boards of directors successfully drive the human side of transformational change within their organizations.