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How One CEO Survives—And Thrives—In Crisis

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During the pandemic, Argonon used this method to keep revenue loss to 9 percent, compared with the 19-percent industry average.

Even during the best of times, the role of CEO is demanding. We need to be visionary strategists, great communicators, motivators, budgeters and a whole lot more. We have to think deeply, accurately read people, take tough decisions; all while being authentic and inspiring.

Unfortunately, these are not the best of times and during a crisis the pressure on us intensifies dramatically. Our team and clients look to us for reassurance. Life as a CEO can be a harsh and lonely place  and many of us find ourselves pushed to breaking point. I’ve experienced this myself.

After all the shocks we have faced over the past few years, that’s probably something you know all about. But where I can perhaps offer something new and useful is with a method that helps leaders navigate their business through a crisis with calm and purposeful leadership to emerge stronger and fitter. The Flexible Method was first developed by Argonon during the 2008 Credit Crunch and has since been refined over many other crises. During the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, using this method led to our group outperforming the market average. We took a 9 percent fall in revenue, compared to an industry average of 19 percent. Our major competitor suffered a whopping 30 percent drop.

Keep it flexible

One of the keys to this tried and tested method is having a flexible mindset. You may not be familiar with the independent TV production sector but trust me—we are experts at managing tight margins. We have learned to be nimble and always ready to pivot. Other industries could benefit from adopting similar ways of thinking that are perhaps not currently in their DNA.

To survive in this era of unprecedented change, the best asset you can have to prepare you and your business both psychologically and systemically for change developing is a flexible mindset. Letting go of a system that has served you well can be hard, but staying in your comfort zone is not an option. Preparing your business involves thinking the unthinkable so you can develop procedures to cope with the worst that can happen. The future shocks we will face won’t all involve disasters; disruptive technology such as AI could also radically alter the business landscape.

Defending our businesses against a multitude of future threats can seem overwhelming but preparation is key to our companies’ survival and long-term prosperity. Not every crisis strikes out of the blue; you can often see the storm approaching, giving you time to dig out your business continuity and disaster recovery plans. These should regularly be updated by game planning across your organization in calm times.

Wield a scalpel, not an axe

When disaster strikes, I have seen managers act defensively in the belief they are protecting their business when they are actually damaging it over the long-term. Cash flow is often the killer, so you will have to make cuts—but wield a scalpel, not an axe. If you panic and blindly slash spending across the board you can do more long-term damage than the crisis itself, even if it feels like you are acting decisively.

We have to be open to new ways of working and willing to change our business practices, evolving as the situation develops. We are going to need fresh ideas to transform our business to win new markets and customers. In fact, in many ways we need to act like we are running a startup.

In a crisis your team will look to you for strong leadership, but in my view being macho doesn’t equate with strength. I aspire to lead with calm purpose, setting achievable goals one step at a time and fiercely pursuing them to conclusion. A crisis is very much a time for humility.

I believe that as leaders we must always put our people first. Caring for our staff is not only the right thing to do; it is in our interests. We need our team healthy and onside, so we must look after their mental health.

Lean into core values

In a storm you need an anchor. These are your core values. You should not only hold onto them during a crisis but lean into them. Values are important to people and people are your business. If you ditch your values when things get tough that sends a message that you don’t really care about this and that it is not important.

An instinctive response in a crisis is to batten down the hatches and protect what you have. Counterintuitively, effective collaboration can boost long-term commercial success so reach out to your industry network to share intelligence, experiences and create alliances. Lobby your industry and government with a stronger voice. You will find a host of helpful new friends and allies when you look for them. You don’t have to do all this alone within your company, either. Being an inaccessible leader is never a good idea and it can lead to terrible decision-making, so set up an emergency team. Empower your bravest thinkers, delegating and spreading the decisions across the entire organization. This will make you stronger.

Step up communications

As you will have undoubtedly already experienced, you have to significantly step up communication with your stakeholders in a crisis. But make sure the content of your communications changes as the crisis evolves, tailoring it to the likely emotional state of your audience. They will be very focused on what they need most at that moment and your comms should reflect this. Same goes for your team. You should speak honestly and regularly to all of them. Avoid pretending everything is going to be fine but do kindle hope.

Once you have navigated your business through a crisis, it is the time to set your future course. Assess what has changed in the new norm. The disruption of the crisis may have resulted in new areas to explore while others are less attractive now. A post crisis landscape can offer once-in-a-lifetime opportunities where our spend can go further, so this may be the time to invest to grow.

And once you have thanked and rewarded your exhausted team it is time to prepare for the next crisis…

A final thought: as I’m sure you have been told by your loved ones, don’t not neglect your own health either. CEOs often overlook self-care but I contend it is one of the key qualities of a leader.


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