After the first few months of the pandemic, if I hadn’t been cautious, I would have said that there could be no surprises in business. After last year’s Tokyo Olympics, I spent a lot of time wondering what’s next for sport? Now here we have a war, and in the middle of the civilised world, in the neighbourhood of my own homeland. Meanwhile, I have to be a mentor, a business manager, a business owner. And, of course, a MAN, a head of a family, which means strong, stable, and all this while fighting back tears when I see the news, when I look at a series of harrowing pictures, and I cannot say that I always win. What is the perfect business behaviour to follow? What is our duty? What is our responsibility? There is no textbook answer! But I do know one thing for sure: there is no universal agenda for this situation.
The pitfalls of a pandemic
As a mentor, I have faced many development challenges in my life. Back when I decided to choose this profession, my British mentor told me that I would love it because it would never be boring. And just when I think there’s nothing new to learn, there’s always another challenge. Plus, I get to make businesspeople, athletes, companies, sports leaders successful, help them “achieve their dreams” and see how great it all feels. I always knew that my mentor was a good professional, but I didn’t think he could see the future. One of my most important jobs in business is to mentor business leaders, business owners and their managers, which means supporting them in every situation, in a meaningful way. I provide a backdrop for the development of themselves and their companies. Every person has their own challenges, even when the external environment is idyllic and peaceful. Every company has its challenges from time to time, even when the economy is humming along smoothly. Then, if I think about it, I have been involved in business development during the transition from communism to capitalism, the advent of social media, the Great Depression, and even created strategies to make business in war-torn areas more dynamic, so I am ‘experienced’, so to speak. After a while – and few people know this – a business developer becomes a really good professional because the business development challenges of the economic events listed above, which are otherwise quite different from each other, have common ground. Added to this knowledge base is a set of often highly repetitive solutions arising from individual and company challenges. However, if the business developer can systematise, analyse and evaluate these, after a while, they will have a clear programme plan and solutions that can be successfully adapted to new goals. Often, for an owner or even the management of a company, it can seem a bit magical how a business developer can so “simply” know the solution to their huge, unique problem. Moreover, working as a mentor means that you have access to all the information – you can see and track the deepest human and business challenges, you are actually involved in solving them – so it is really not too difficult to present the perfect solution to a new partner. I’m not talking about using templates, because in the 300+ management development projects I’ve held in my life, I’ve never been able to use the same program design for any of them. But it is possible to know after a while exactly where to look for the real problem and how to solve it in a systematic way. So it was “just” a matter of adapting it to the company’s model or person. This means, of course, that I can’t save on working time even today, but the certainty of the result is a given. And in the end, that is the most important thing.
The first wind of 2020
Then came 2020, and processes that had never been seen before were set in motion. It took a lot of work to forecast the market and changes in consumer behaviour for at least months. If we did not have the system of personality testing and analysis of decision mechanisms, I can see today that we would have been completely lost. After all, it is always a question of how a particular event will affect customers – whether B2B or B2C – in other words, people. I have clearly learned that we should not generalise about the impact. Sentences that start with “customers will react this way” or “employees will behave this way” do not make sense. Let’s not go into the fact that we all have our own personality type and, therefore, our own decision-making mechanisms, so our points of influence can be defined differently. However, if we are to get real business development solutions, we must certainly divide people into groups in terms of their decision mechanisms to determine successful business moves. Moreover, COVID-19 is the first global crisis to hit people’s personal lives first, and the effects experienced there have been transferred to business. The specific nature of crises is that a particular economic area, location or group of customers is usually affected, which triggers a process that results in a change in the choices and preferences of individuals. It is much easier to manage these impacts by focusing on the area that has suffered damage and by making consumers understand that this is a locally isolated process that will not affect everyone if we do not let the general fear take over. But COVID-19 is not that simple, at least not on the business development side. The way people think, the workplace vs personal life preferences have changed over a very long period. The motivational scale of people has changed drastically, and this clearly entails a transformation of the necessary leadership skills and competencies, the knowledge base.
COVID, loneliness, leader
The processes and programmes to transform the mindset of managers have just started in late 2021, early 2022, after the lock-in forced by the viral crisis. Business owners and executives have also understood that the market will not be the same. As the primary managers, they will have to perform in a completely new market order, and that partners, customers, and employees will make decisions based on absolutely different criteria. For managers, for business decision-makers, a very important factor in their lives has emerged: the fear of privacy. The fear of family members and the increasing value of time spent in private life are completely redefining the way managers work and approach their work. Many managers have already resigned from their company or are looking for a new job because they are disappointed with the response of the decision-maker in the first place to the pandemic, their behaviour, their performance as a manager. So the stakes were high, even if many did not realise it two years ago. As leaders, it was a very difficult time for all of us because we had to stand up for our own private lives and think about the fate of the people we were responsible for. Because that is why we are leaders. The more senior we are, the greater the demands on us in this area. Of course, that is not why many people want to be leaders. Depending on their personality type, they want to dominate others; they like to be seen to be in power, be clever, get more money, and so on, and so on, for the usual reasons, not necessarily positive ones. But those who get stuck with these goals and fail to add responsibility and trustworthiness to their basic objectives will be at a loss. Some of them are already seeing it, and some of them will experience it in the future. As a manager, we had to stand up for the team, the organisation and the company we managed at the beginning of the virus crisis. Yes, we had to put aside our concern or even fear that any member of our family might die from this deadly virus. We had to set new strategic directions and make sure the company was running. The smaller the business, the greater the responsibility – even if many people did not think so – and the greater the loneliness. Everyone now knows how they managed to overcome that situation. The results will be quite striking. We will see how well we have managed to overcome the challenges of “being a man and a family man, but also a leader”.
Important lessons learned
The current situation can only be understood by focusing specifically on the business decision-maker side, and only by assessing the impact of the last two years. For managers and the market, we are talking about a prolonged mental impact, the end of which we have only just begun to hope for. We still have to deal with the restructured market situation that has emerged, but at least companies now know that it has to be dealt with. Because otherwise, key employees will leave, managers will also look for new jobs, and that could mean the end of the company. Obviously, the demise may be slower for larger employers and faster for smaller ones. But now we are at the start of another, much bloodier and, in its mental impact, quite different event from the one we have seen so far. It is important to note that, as a businessman, I am not politicising; nor am I trying to be a historian, but I am focusing on the decision-making mechanisms of people. Within that, I am now focusing exclusively on the economic environment. So, during the two years of COVID-19, people became completely insecure, and although each personality type has derived this differently, in shopping, in labour market issues, fear, the search for stability, became the general driving forces.
Another effect that has appeared dramatically in the labour market and in the business environment is the very strong demand for honesty. Indeed, everyone now expects the leader to be human. There are also strong generational reasons for this, as the process is not entirely new, but it has been made much more dynamic by the viral crisis.
The third important effect is the basic need for professional credibility. Although this should be obvious to everyone, very few countries can be said to hold their leaders to account. In many cases, it is the people who shout the ‘big ideas’ as loudly as possible who can prevail, and the real professionals are relegated to the background because of their quieter character. The pandemic was the first crisis of international proportions in the economy where the “mavericks”, the “self-proclaimed experts” were drastically ignored by the people. Although this process started after the Great Depression of 2008, the effect died down after a while. This is perfectly observable in our broader profession of business development consultancy and organisational development, as it is quite easy to see the progress or failure in the revenues. If a consultancy really adds value to its clients, it will continue to grow yearly in terms of revenue and profit. If there are negative effects in any of these categories, then professionalism is certainly called into question. It is no coincidence that for consultancies, for example, the number of firms that have lost significant revenue since 2020 is estimated at around 85-90% at the European level, with very few that have grown. Many ‘smart consultants’ have been caught out, and in the crisis, their partners have decided that working together was not worth much, so the first victim of cost-cutting and caution has been the consultancy.
The fourth important phenomenon is the further significant increase in the role of idols and their influence on firm success. This is not a new phenomenon either, as it has been a major headache for the profession for years as new generations enter the labour market, but in the last two years, only those firms with very strong idols have really survived the crisis and thrived. After the 2008 crisis, this process also experienced turbulence, but after a while, as the economy returned to normal, the winds of selection did not fully blow. COVID-19 is now finishing what was left ten years ago.
What the driver should do now
Appreciating this wealth of information, what does a truly successful leader need to know, and how should they behave in 2022, heading out of the COVID-19 era and into a period of war in the civilised world? First of all, don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you know exactly what to do! Because they are certainly not telling the truth, because there has never been a leader in the world in such a situation. So I am writing down what I believe is essential for success. But remember that all this is the thinking of a perfectionist mentor, who often prefers to chew the situation over, sometimes over-analysing, and not allowing failure for himself or his partners. Of course, this also includes not taking certain risks, and I may not necessarily be right about that! However, my partners know that if I say “we have to move now”, then we have to move! I think it is important to show clearly at this time that we are human! What does this mean in practice? Let’s not be superheroes, let’s not be afraid to express our emotions, let’s not be afraid to admit when we are at a loss on a particular issue, and let’s certainly not be afraid to be weak when it comes to tragedies! We do not want to completely shut out the outside world, but we must accept that there are people in need around us who need to be understood and supported. Let us understand that as leaders – as people living a better than average life – we have a social responsibility and a duty to our fellow human beings who are in need! We also know, and we want to hear, that there are colleagues, team members, subordinates, who are very emotionally affected by the war, but let us not expect everyone to feel that way, because for some, it is an easier situation to deal with, and that is fine, but it does not make them better or worse people. We want to get to know the people who are important to us at work, not just in terms of numbers, results and charts. We often say that people are important, now is the time to take this statement seriously! We must also think strategically about the present situation and the future. As well as focusing on people, as leaders, we have a responsibility to manage the present in business terms, to build the future in business terms. We need to take a break from the day-to-day to see the situation in a kind of ‘ivory tower’. Let’s go far away from the work of everyday life and have unique, unconventional management reflections. Involve outside experts in decisions, if for no other reason than to organise our thoughts. We need to create a new strategy, or if we did last year because of the pandemic, we now need to tackle an “emotional evolution” of it. The decisive element of the strategy now and for the coming period is certainly people, that is to say, we must think in terms of people and not in terms of tasks, because good professionals will be the bottleneck in the future and it is with them that we will achieve success in the end. We need to shift our mindset to a version where we know exactly that what the world is going through now is indeed a trauma. Moreover, there is a war not only in Ukraine, but there are bombings in Pakistan, tribal wars in Africa, the almost total destruction of women’s rights in Afghanistan, and the list of dramatic events in the world goes on. All this is also a kind of mental attack on the sense of security and stable future of people not directly affected by these events. Some people overreact to it, some people choose to ignore it, but it is seriously reshaping our decision-making mechanisms. This is also a time when we have to ask ourselves: is the business we are in just making money, or is it putting value on the table? Is it delivering real results for people, or is it just making us rich, and if the latter is the case, value creation needs to be built into the strategy. Now not just to make us better people, but because without it, the business will go bust. In the same way, we need to ask the question about colleagues as leaders: are they really working, creating value, or just passing the time and taking the money home? And as real managers, we must learn to state our clearly objective opinions, discuss them and then make sharp decisions at the end of the process, because we have a responsibility to ensure that, for example, people who create value are given more space in the future. As business leaders, but especially as owners, we also need to be aware that we can lose money, wealth and vision. But this is not the time to feel sorry for ourselves, and certainly not to expect anyone else to do so. We have neither the time nor the right. I am not saying, of course, that we should be complacent about the market going bust, about share prices falling, but this is a situation in which many people are losing much more than that, and we should not expect empathy for the lack of business results. But we can do something to ensure that this does not happen to us!
Personally, I’ve set up my own agenda that I feel I can get along with and be a more useful and better person, so I’ll be more successful in the end. First of all, I make sure that I hug my partner more than usual, or at least hold his hand or just be near him. I don’t want to show anything in a fake way, selfishly, so I can gather extra strength for the specific tasks and give him extra energy by doing so. My subsequent task is to figure out how I can best, truly help the victims of the war, and I am also careful not to fall into the mistake of my personality type of over-analysing things, looking for the perfect solution, but simply to act. After that, I need to put all that behind me and focus on really analysing the situation economically, as I can impact the future of tens of thousands of people through the organisational development of our partners, and support the performance of hundreds of athletes. I don’t want to be a partner in bringing life to a standstill because of a war, because although I have never been political, I am a committed believer in democracy and freedom, where people do their work, and one crazy leader cannot stop the whole world. And that is my job as a mentor. In the first few days after the outbreak of the war, it was very difficult to live up to my own expectations, because a piece of news or a photo opened at the wrong time had a drastic effect on me. Then a few days ago, I read a post that helped me “come to my senses”. The pictures of the little boy who was called the hero of the night have gone around the world. At the age of 11, he came 950 kilometres from his home to cross the border with a nylon bag, a passport, and a phone number written on his arm. My tears welled up, and then I felt unconscious anger at myself. How hard is it for a leader? What is this compared to what this frail, excuse me, strong young man had accomplished? And who knows how many such heroes we do not yet know about – or will know about later – whether in Ukraine or elsewhere in the world?
So let’s shut up, work much harder than usual, adapt to the new situation! That is why we are managers; that is why we are business owners! Let us do what we have to do, with humility and responsibility! We are bound to make mistakes; we are human. But successful people at least try.