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Jul 17, 2020

Turning Crisis Into Opportunity

Sponsored Content provided by Richard Walsh - Director, Swain Center for Executive Education & Economic Development

Executive Summary: this article outlines the results from three sets of interviews conducted by UNCW’s Swain Center for Executive Education and with over 100 leaders on how business and leadership has advanced from 2019 to today, and what leaders can do to turn crisis into opportunity.

Prepare for Change

In late 2019, we advised leaders and summarized our results in Preparing for the Future. This was also the theme during the 2019 Economic Outlook Conference. At that time, we found that executive roles were growing in complexity and accountability. These executives told us that they needed “bigger minds,” requiring them to think more broadly, globally and strategically, while applying cross-disciplinary knowledge, clear communications, and keen decision-making.

Further, all leaders were expected to collaborate, leverage data, spot trends, and provide clear vision. These leaders also needed to develop higher resiliency for themselves, their teams, and across their organizations.

Reshape in Crisis

As we moved into 2020, most leaders were thrust into a whole new environment, along with new ways of working. Of course, Wilmington leaders were no exception. The Swain Center quickly interviewed another group of leaders and summarized those results in a second Insight article called Re-shaping Our Business and Re-defining Our Leadership.
At that time, leaders wanted to ensure a safe and healthy work environment for their staff, while also getting closer to their “customers.” They needed to leverage data, analyze the impact to operations, determine trends, and seize emerging opportunities. Still others needed to challenge earlier assumptions, reduce fixed costs, and adapt to new and emerging markets. Teams pushed to focus on “business fundamentals,” in order to better assess operations, marketing, finance, accounting, law, information systems and supply chains.

Create New Opportunity

Most recently, we surveyed another group of leaders, and found a strong desire to “turn crisis into opportunity.” Leaders are now creating processes for social distancing and other protective measures for employees. Many are welcoming back, or “re-boarding” a workforce who is far more aware of the importance of vision, communications, virtual engagement, social justice, and how these all come together to ensure organizational effectiveness. Budgets, workflow, headcount, and priorities have been altered — in many cases drastically — and things are by no means settled.
As organizations are “getting back to business,” there is now an even greater need for leadership. While the initial shock occurred, we know that leaders will continue to face difficult and short-term decisions while making longer-term investments. At the same time, some markets will change, some forever — so business strategy will need to change, too. Leaders will be focused on plans to emerge from this pandemic as strong as possible, before losing critical talent, financial strength, or the capacity to adapt to the demands of today’s “new realities.”
How leaders respond to the current hardships will directly affect any organization’s ability to survive and thrive. At the Swain Center, we know a lot about what goes into a leadership journey — yet in a time of extraordinary global crisis, we, too, find ourselves in unfamiliar territory. It is only now, we must remind ourselves that “hardship is part of the leadership journey.”
For individuals, hardships can provide deeper self-knowledge, increased sensitivity and compassion, greater flexibility, and foster new perspectives. For organizations, hardships provide an opportunity for leaders to streamline operations, and to identify and carry out the actions necessary to align their organization and move it forward.
Senior leadership teams may be tempted to avoid taking bold action, yet the COVID-19 crisis requires clearer understanding of potential threat. Focusing on these challenges and translating them into new opportunities will boost leaders’ ability to flourish in the face of unprecedented hardship.
Based on our experience in coaching top leaders across many industries, critical leadership focus will now include communicating a new vision or direction, aligning resources to that vision, and gaining commitment throughout the organization.

Next Steps: Work on Your Leadership
“No one knows yet how long this new reality is going to last,” or what exactly is on the other side, but we do know that “leadership can be the differentiator in an organization.” Leadership is far more important now than ever.
So, highly impactful leaders and effective leadership will emerge from the current crisis and its aftermath. The Swain Center predicts that the organizations that flourish will be experts at harnessing the powerful catalyst of working, leading and learning through these hardships.
Yet, the leadership that will be created during this time will not resemble a power that flows from above and to other influential individuals. Rather, leadership will be created collectively by many resilient people who can adapt together – not just by surviving, but by thriving while facing stress and chaos.

For Executive Teams

Focus your efforts on achieving the highest level of performance for yourselves and your organizations. In the best of times, this team’s ability to work together to drive change and execute strategy may be the most critical element in your organization’s success. Seek out wise advice, in those you trust, or with an executive coach, as you prepare for the next decision as well as for future changes needed.

For Leaders

Support yourself and take care of your people. Right now, you may be struggling to keep your team connected and on task while they’re dealing with many distractions. You’ve had to bring hope, while also being the bearer of tough news during this transition. You’re now managing so much and may need help to figure out how to “show up” as your organization faces new challenges. Seek help across your organization as well as from outside. Build your leadership as you prepare for a new future. Look to see how you can help drive key decisions and move your organization forward.

For the Next Gen-eration of Leaders

If there ever was a time, this is your time to show yourself and others what you bring to your organization. We need you. Perhaps more than many in your organization, you have prepared yourself for this uncertainty, by understanding emerging trends, leveraging new technology, analyzing data, and working across multiple disciplines. Be patient, yet impatient. Learn how to best leverage this time for your own growth while supporting your organization’s success. Be a role model for others, in social distancing, on-going communications, planning and even managing costs. Reach out often and seek advice through mentorship, education and training.

For Everyone

Expand your perspective with complimentary, practical resources on topics of crucial importance today. The Swain Center has leveraged years of practical research on topics such as crisis leadership, building resilience, virtual teamwork, and digital learning. Use tools that are complimentary, if possible. Click Here for complimentary services that can help prepare you, as well as others in your organization.  Explore these services to help move from today’s crisis to tomorrow’s opportunity.

From Crisis to Opportunity – A Roadmap


Richard Walsh, serves as director of UNCW’s Swain Center for Executive Education. He brings over 25 years of leadership experience in industry, higher education and consulting and provides advanced expertise in leadership, transformation and executive coaching. He worked for top organizations such as AT&T, GE and IBM as well as for the top-ranked Center for Creative Leadership. He is well-published and lives in Wilmington, NC. For more information on his background, see here.


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