5 minute read 18 Aug 2020
EY Farmer using drone

Plotting a course through challenging times

By Chris McCormack

UK&I Director, People Advisory Services, Ernst & Young LLP

Passionate about delivering transformation change, helping clients prepare for the future world of work. Husband and father of two children. Lives in Glasgow. Enjoys golf.

5 minute read 18 Aug 2020

The term “post-COVID-19 world” is now a popular phrase in people’s lockdown lexicon, but with a vaccine or natural immunity still far away, we are still very much in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

For many leaders in private businesses, recognition of our place in the timeline is crucial in determining the adaptive skills required in future talent. It is only with these skills that an organisation will be able to successfully navigate to the post-coronavirus landscape in a position of strength.

At EY People Advisory Services we’ve created a Leadership and Teaming Assessment to help businesses identify the leaders who will help make the transition to new economic landscapes. We took a scientific, evidence-based and research-backed approach to developing this framework, supporting the work done by the firm and the Global Leadership Forecast which studied 25,000 leaders, in 2,500 organisations, across 54 countries and 26 industries.

Using this analysis, here are the areas private market leaders must consider to help them navigate their businesses through the challenging times ahead.

Demonstrate awareness of the current situation

A successful leader navigates by being fully present and aware of their current situation. This leader will understand that if they cannot grasp the situation as it is, then the business will be put at serious risk.

It is in the middle of tough situations that strong leaders, but more prominently, strong leadership teams, show their true colours. The coronavirus pandemic has driven, and accelerated, change and we are seeing leaders adopting a listening style and actively seeking feedback from their team.

Ride the wave and embrace ambiguity

This is an important step. It requires clarity of foresight to be able to create that power base for the leader as an individual and, importantly, for the team around them.

A decade ago, when the business environment was relatively stable, leaders had a good idea on what they would be measured on and what the short to medium term challenges would be. Today however, ambiguity is a constant. It occurs every day, particularly with the growing presence of social media and digital channels in all our lives, and the diversity of our teams around us.

Ultimately, success will be delivered by Leaders who clearly display clarity of mind and the ability to act with agility in the face of a rapidly changing situation.

Lead your team by adapting and responding together

Speaking to private business leaders, we have been discussing how strong leadership teams need the confidence to know when to quickly abandon or change a plan, often shortly after the plan is agreed.

However, changing our minds is not always easy to do. Sometimes we need experts, frameworks, or markers, to help us identify our strengths and weaknesses.

Take the NHS for example, who, in the face of a crisis never seen before, have deepened and further developed teamwork, resilience, leadership and responsibility - working collectively as a team. It is testament to those competencies that the system stood up as strongly as it did.

We may recognise that example right now, but I suspect we will look back in years to come to truly understand the power of the collective leadership and purpose shown across all of those teams.

Take difficult decisions and communicate them effectively

A truly inspirational example of leadership in this crisis is that of Airbnb Co-Founder and CEO Brian Chesky, who wrote a letter to all employees at the start of May, when he took the hard decision to reduce the size of his team by 25%. The letter offered a full explanation for the decision and outlined the measures that Airbnb would take to help those employees leaving the business including severance, equity, healthcare, and job support.

This not only offered tangible support to those individuals leaving the business, but treated them all as individuals who will be more likely to want to return to the company in better times. His message was written with compassion and heartfelt regret, but was delivered honestly and quickly, for the long-term stability of the company.

Choosing the “least worst” option is never easy, but colleagues will always prefer a leader who will communicate the rationale behind their decisions.

Create a rewarding environment with a shared vision

Talent will leave organisations if a leader’s purpose or values do not align with their own. It is becoming increasingly important for an organisation’s values and purpose to be aligned to an individual’s – and purpose alignment can be more influential than traditional remuneration packages.

If leaders get this right and create a collective purpose, they can expect to see improvements in individual and organisation performance. This is particularly relevant for private businesses.

Continue to embrace change and plan for the future

Leading with purpose, honesty and authenticity will be of value to any organisation, but to really thrive, private businesses should already be planning for the year ahead and committing themselves to where they want to be in the coming years.

Those who can navigate know just how important it is to dedicate planning time and “vision out” to at least a year ahead. They should also dedicate serious planning time to consider who are the best people to drive forward this change. These people could already exist within the business – and need to be provided with targeted development and support to thrive.

Where is my organisation going to be and how are we going to get there? What are the factors that will influence and challenge our journey, and how do we embrace the change to keep us on the right path? Who are the best people to drive forward this change?

These are the questions that leaders must be using to shape their plans.

With an unprecedented pace of change, a truly transformative leader must still be able to lift their head up and look beyond the immediate challenges to a vision of growth.

In brief:
  • Leaders should have awareness of the current situation
  • Lead the team by adapting and responding together
  • Take difficult decisions and communicate effectively
  • Embrace change and plan for the future 


As part of our Real Insights series, we explore four qualities that define the leader of the future: Think, Navigate, Connect and Relate. Here we explore, Navigate, why successful business leaders will already be planning a year ahead.

About this article

By Chris McCormack

UK&I Director, People Advisory Services, Ernst & Young LLP

Passionate about delivering transformation change, helping clients prepare for the future world of work. Husband and father of two children. Lives in Glasgow. Enjoys golf.