How can leaders create opportunities in uncertain times?

Alison Kay,

Global Vice Chair - Industry EY

More about the author

As Global Vice Chair of Industry, Alison’s role is to help businesses navigate disruption across industry sectors and help balance between growth, profit and trust.  She joined EY in 2007 with a strong background in advisory and utilities. 

Leaders can take heed from the seismic shifts in the world today. By becoming more responsive, inclusive and purposeful, they will benefit business and society

Leaders vision – view through glasses lenses of city

Brexit and the US elections have arguably led the colossal shifts in politics in 2016, leaving many feeling distinctly uneasy. Globalization has not favored everyone and there is concern about increasing inequality around the world. As we transition from the industrial revolution to the digital revolution, what kind of future are we hurtling toward?

Business drives the global economy and in doing so, plays a huge role in setting the world’s agenda. While business leaders are not democratically elected, they need to stop and listen to the changes taking place. Their role is not just about wealth creation; it’s about society as a whole.

The role of business is not just about wealth creation; it’s about society as a whole.

How should leaders respond?

I believe that now, more than ever, we need leaders to inspire people to work together and create a better future. A future where facts count. A future where businesses strive to create long-term value that ultimately benefits clients, people and communities.

Words are easy. What’s harder is creating a business that embodies these values in real, tangible ways. In the last few months, I’ve met some people who are doing just that, by focusing on three key areas:

Words are easy. What’s harder is creating a business that embodies these values in real, tangible ways.

  1. Adapt and be flexible. While many companies talk the talk on adapting to local markets, I recently met a retailer that spent two and a half years creating the right environment for its business to flourish in a new market. This retailer built its brand using a consistent approach across the globe. However, to enter a new, developing market, it had to overcome practical hurdles, such as restrictions on foreign ownership and cultural obstacles.

    Following a lengthy and healthy negotiation process, government and company came to a mutual agreement. The government modified its rules and the retailer flexed its corporate model by developing a more local supply chain, sourcing goods within the country and expanding its product line to reflect the local culture. It also trained four times the number of employees it needed, creating a more skilled workforce that benefits all. This far-sighted approach took real leadership. It took the courage to break the mold to do something different. It also took vision to broker the compromises that led to the company’s success. It’s worth asking yourself: what are you working on now that you really believe in? Where do you or your company need to show more flexibility?

  2. Value and reskill your people. Automation and robotics will have a tremendous impact on the future of work – and not just the low-value, low-skilled jobs. Last year, the World Economic Forum found that job losses are most likely to be concentrated in manufacturing, construction and installation roles – all male-dominated jobs – but also in administration, sales and production roles that are typically dominated by women. How do we treat those left behind? As businesses, we need to value and reskill our people; we need to think strategically about how to deploy all that talent. We need to ask ourselves now: what roles in our company are likely to be affected? What skills are transferrable? How can we retrain those who want to remain with the organization?

  3. Let purpose be your guide. Disruption has upended just about every industry in the world, often rendering existing business models obsolete. Amid so much uncertainty, defining your company’s reason for being – its purpose – in a “big picture” narrative is crucial for instilling strategic clarity, motivating staff, driving innovation beyond the short term and creating a broader positive impact. A global survey from EY Beacon Institute and Harvard Business Review Analytic Services shows that companies with a clearly articulated and understood purpose lead the pack in terms of revenue and successful expansions and transformations, among other areas. What does purpose look like in practice? While I was in India recently, I met an entrepreneur who stood out for his commitment to fairness and dignity in a business notorious for charges of unethical labor practices and child labor: carpet making. This man followed through on his purpose to employ and pay a fair wage to the lowest castes in society and help build understanding across groups and cultures. This has been at great personal cost given he was from one of the highest castes. His family ostracized him. Today, he runs a successful business exporting carpets to the US, UK and Europe. Each rug he sells includes a personal message from the person making it; there’s also a postcard that the customer can send back to the rug maker. Making those connections between two people, between weaver and buyer, is such a powerful way to remove fear and prejudice. With purpose as his guide, today, his business has successfully differentiated itself, exporting carpets to the US and Europe while making a strong local impact.

Automation and robotics will have a tremendous impact on the future of work. How do we treat those left behind?

Finding the upside

The digital revolution brings with it great upheaval – but it also brings great opportunity. Yes, change can be painful. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the potential upside. As Joshua Cooper Ramo said in his best-selling book, Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks: “Leadership is about recognizing where power lies and how to adapt. You have to seek out the deeper chord changes in history. This is one of them.” 

Leadership is about recognizing where power lies and how to adapt. You have to seek out the deeper chord changes in history. This is one of them. 

Joshua Cooper Ramo, Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks

To me, leadership is about being responsive and inclusive. It is about creating a business that thinks long-term for its clients, people and communities. It’s about diversity of thought. That’s how you get successful solutions to complex problems. And that’s what is needed from all of us: leadership and courage.