How did business leaders cope and innovate during COVID-19?

Jedrzej George Frynas is Professor of Strategic Management in the OU Business School. This text is based on the C-19 Innovation and Leadership webinar series, organised by the OU Business School and The Whole Thing Group.

In our C-19 Innovation and Leadership webinar series, we questioned 12 international business leaders on how their businesses coped with and innovated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Each webinar focused on a different aspect: business innovations, communications innovations, finance innovations and social innovations.

The challenges of the pandemic were many. Bladon Micro Turbine, a manufacturing company, lost  £60 million in funding for new investment at short notice, which forced it to put on hold its growth strategy. Other companies faced liquidity problems and disruptions. There were ripple effects down the supply chain, with shipments delayed, deliveries delayed and payments delayed.

At the same time, many company directors surprisingly kept their positive attitude and embraced new business opportunities, new opportunities for innovation and the shift towards remote working.

New business opportunities

Many business leaders have come to see the COVID-19 pandemic as a potential source of business opportunities. Some companies sped up their long-term strategic plans as a result of the pandemic, such as by shifting more quickly to digital platforms and online sales channels. Other companies saw opportunities for launching new products and services. One subsidiary of UK’s Portmeirrion Group quickly converted production from producing luxury scented candles and reed diffusers to hand sanitizers, while PachaMacha – a health food business in Nigeria – expanded into farming low cost good quality rice and mixed nuts to offer a healthy alternative to the junk food that many Nigerians turned to during the pandemic. Catherine McManus, Partner and Head of Tax at Wylie & Bisset LLP, summed it up: ‘‘There will be a deep recession, but we know there will be opportunities’.

Opportunities for innovation

Many business leaders have embraced opportunities to innovate their business operations. Sara Roberts, CEO of Healthy Nibbles, said: ‘Despite the uncertainty and the fear of the unknown, there was this opportunity for innovation, there was the opportunity to be flexible, to explore different routes to supporting our clients’. Companies explored new routes to serving customers, new ways of structuring their business, new ways of sharing knowledge between units of the company, different ways to cut operational costs, new ways of communicating. Phil Atherton, Group Sales and Marketing Director at Portmeirion Group PLC, emphasised that ‘when there is a crisis like this, it is generally much easier to push through any change in the business’.

Remote working

Some business leaders have been so impressed with the effectiveness of remote working that they have started making plans for adopting remote working as a permanent solution to a smaller or larger extent. This ties in with various recent surveys of HR professionals, which suggest that the number of employees working primarily from home (at least three days a week) will significantly increase post-pandemic, including an April survey by the Conference Board (2020) in the United States which suggested that ‘an increase in remote working could become the most influential legacy of COVID-19’. Bernard Ross, CEO of Sky Medical Technology summed it up: ‘We will never have to get back to how the office was. We have people who sat in the office for 40 hours a week in front of a computer. We have now realised they can do that work from home regardless of what their function is’. As one key benefit, remote working allows the company to find new staff in any country in the world, not just within an hour or two travel distance from the office – so the company can draw on a much larger talent pool.

Lesson learned: Need to train the leaders

But one strategic area that companies will have to improve on is training the leaders. On the one hand, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way that organisations work and leaders need to upskill to keep up. For example, Total Produce Plc. – one of the world’s largest fresh food producers and providers – launched an online management programme to train its leaders and managers throughout the company globally; this includes, for example, a learning module on managing teams – partly through holding virtual meetings and using technology in new ways. David Frost, the company’s Group Organisational Development Director, said: ‘there is real appetite and the need to train managers and leaders around the organisation to operate in this different way’.

On the other hand, some leaders have been slow at reacting to change and taking necessary decisions to address changing circumstances. Emma Seymour, VP Worker Welfare at Expo 2020 Dubai, suggested that some business leaders ‘have been paralysed by the scale of this [COVID-19 pandemic] and the speed with which they had to adapt’. She concluded that ‘the world needs to invest in significant leadership skills because you have to have leaders in the organisation to make decisions quickly and appropriately with access to the relevant data’.

Like the rest of us, business leaders will have to learn new skills and to become more agile, in order to cope with the more unstable and uncertain world that we live in.

Find out more and watch the webinar series

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