You Shouldn’t Need An Actual ‘Black Swan’ To Be Ready For One

One year after leading our companies through unprecedented operational disruption, we can be prepared for next time—no matter what that is.

It was March 14, 2020, another beautiful Sunday afternoon in San Diego. My wife and I had just returned home from an ice-skating lesson for our eight-year-old son. As I put my keys away and sat down to check my emails, my phone got a news alert about cases for the novel coronavirus, which would later be known as Covid-19, spiking from five to 25 in our hometown over the weekend. While I had spent the previous two months brushing off how the virus was spreading through Asia, reality was starting to kick in at that moment.

In one of the most influential books of this young century, The Black Swan, the scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that unexpected dramatic events matter more than regular ones. Another one of his key points is that we should manifest a robustness to protect oneself, one’s family or one’s company from being unduly affected by outliers like a pandemic.

I can’t help but think about Taleb’s literary work during this anniversary month of the pandemic. Before 2020 began, my company had grown from just a very small team to nearly 300 employees during two decades of constant growth. Then, we experienced a previously unimaginable shutdown, which raised formidable challenges that we triaged through during early spring. When our dental offices began opening back up in May, we had safety protocols in place that worked to a “T.” Our customers felt comfortable getting their procedures taken care of, and all of our locations got at least part of their business back, thankfully.

Most importantly, what this past year has taught me as an executive is that you can never start forming contingency plans too early—even before they are needed. Who knows if we will again have to shut down normal commercial and social activity sometime in five, 10 or 15 years? It may not ever happen again, but it could.

Aiming for exemplary crisis leadership

Going forward, I will have a leadership playbook in my desk drawer that outlines what I’ve learned from this difficult period. I will keep it handy for future emergencies.

This document will be a personal guide on how to instill cross-departmental empathy during a crisis that goes beyond my company’s walls. It will be about how to provide leadership that is steadiness personified on Zoom calls, via email and in-person—all the while encouraging productivity in an appropriate and resilient way. My playbook will also include, among many other directives, not being afraid of three specific actions:

• Reshuffle operations

Among the many reshuffling moves we made to keep everyone safe when the pandemic began, a couple made a profound impact on both the customer experience (CX) and employee experience (EX). We launched a virtual lounge that allowed patients to check-in from their cars, limiting exposure between all parties during a dental visit. And we added telehealth and video conferencing options for appropriate situations and expanded our online booking process. While future crises will likely be different, these digitalization examples will be in my playbook along with a question I must ask myself as a CEO: What are a couple of big ways I can reshuffle operations that will serve my most important constituents—my customers and my employees?

• Take time to think long-term

While the CX and EX changes were born from immediate necessity, the backend technology we implemented last year challenged us to think about not only surviving the pandemic but also about growing it for the next several years. So, we invested in cutting-edge KPI software for remote performance monitoring of our various offices. While this software has helped us operate in the “new normal,” it will also let us expand beyond our current Southern California locations. During moments of crisis, business leaders can get caught up in the moment, so “think long-term” definitely has its own page in my crisis playbook.

• Delegate decision-making

Pre-Covid, all of our business decisions were made at our central business office by our executive team. A year ago, we decided to give authority to our managers and supervisors to make decisions on their own, since our usual way of working together had drastically changed. If another crisis arises, it’s possible we might have different managers and supervisors in place, but we’ll have this system documented and ready to help our company move forward.

Laying the groundwork to minimize outliers

Business leaders like myself have already done most of the hard work to create such a playbook, just by living through the last year. Now, we simply need to write down how we would more perfectly lead if we needed to do it again, and those are lessons that are portable beyond pandemics and can help CEOs and other executives manage through whatever comes next.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s definition of a black swan includes the statement that “nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility.” If we read those words carefully and remember the Swine Flu pandemic of ‘09, we realize what epidemiologists have known since then—a crisis of Covid-19’s magnitude was predictable. This pandemic was not one of Taleb’s black swans.

Yet, the past year should teach executives to do whatever they can to protect their companies from being unduly affected by outliers like pandemics. The strategy is simple: be ready.