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How an entrepreneurial mindset saved two companies after pandemic hits

Despite unprecedented uncertainty, some of today’s most dynamic leaders are creating long-term value by being proactive and open to change.

In brief 

  • To seize new potential, business leaders should become adaptive and keep a growth-oriented mindset.
  • Resilient leaders keep a steady focus on balancing capabilities to meet evolving customer and stakeholder expectations.

Imagine being seven days into your role as company CEO when, suddenly, the world shuts down. Or suppose you’re leading a successful business, watching the demand for your product flatline. These are some of the real-life scenarios that LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky and Flytographer CEO Nicole Smith experienced when the COVID-19 pandemic landed.

But entrepreneurial-minded leaders, like Roslansky and Smith, can turn unconventional situations into unexpected success. In fact, embracing counterintuitive practices can lead to concrete progress.

“Today’s business environment is moving at a speed that we haven’t seen in 40 years,” says EY-Parthenon Chief Economist Gregory Daco. “As we gear up for a short-term future with no shortage of shakeups, business leaders must become adaptive — but not hasty — and keep a growth-oriented mindset to seize new potential.”

Growth in uncertain times: be adaptive, not reactive

Executive roles aren’t for the faint of heart under the best of circumstances, but Roslansky — who began his tenure as CEO of LinkedIn at the height of the pandemic disruption — and entrepreneurial leaders like him weren’t anywhere near the best of circumstances in 2020. “In my first week, I had to shut down 38 offices. By week four, the world shut down, and every company stopped hiring — which is the core of our business,” he recalls.

This is a familiar story. According to a recent EY study of 3,000 privately owned companies, in just four years, leaders’ strategic priorities have significantly shifted as they’ve moved through four critical business phases: growth (pre-pandemic), crisis management (peak pandemic), recovery (emergence from peak pandemic) and talent disruption (skill shortages and inflation). Such dramatic, rapid changes cause significant imbalances within organizations, but resilient leaders keep a steady focus on balancing capabilities to meet evolving customer and stakeholder expectations, while employing tactics such as scenario planning.

Historically, leaders who have remained focused and resilient through tumultuous times have tended to weather storms better than more reactive peers. Roslansky did just this, leading LinkedIn through these critical phases with an eye toward innovation. In response to shutdowns and hiring freezes, he and his team considered what other aspects of LinkedIn might benefit users, such as trainings and events. By adapting the company’s core services, Roslansky made a bold move without any guarantee that LinkedIn’s user base would react positively. And it worked. “Instead of a $2 billion loss forecast, we saw $3 billion-plus growth,” he says.

“The task of any leader right now is to ensure you’re really stepping up and making decisions to move forward,” he says. “Be agile and understand that there’s a middle ground between making rash decisions and becoming rigid due to fear. Adaptive leaders — and especially entrepreneurs — see moments of change as a way to find opportunity for growth.”

Cultivating a new mindset counts for everything

A recent EY study of 1,200 global CEOs showed that nearly all expected a near-term recession, and more than one-half (55%) believed it would differ in complexity compared to prior economic downturns. Leaders didn’t agree on how long or severe the recession would be, but they did identify a host of concurrent issues they viewed as nearly equal, complicating threats — pandemic-type supply-chain issues (32%), geopolitical tensions (30%) and climate change pressures (28%). The key takeaways were to continually reassess the business holistically, juggle near-term and long-term thinking, and be bold in pursuing new opportunities.

Flytographer is a service that connects travelers with professional photographers around the world. In 2020, founder and CEO Smith overcame moments of self-doubt when the pandemic shut down travel, forcing difficult decisions regarding talent, logistics and every other aspect of her brand.

“When the pandemic hit, we lost 98% of our business overnight,” she says. “In order to ensure the viability of my company and that we’d make it through to the other side, I had to make some really quick decisions. That included temporarily laying off 80% of the team. [I had to] reexamine the entire business.”

Smith wasn’t sure what would come next. She was forced to adopt a forward-looking mentality to stay in control of the business she’d worked hard to build. “I learned it’s important to focus on what you can control and then move forward from a place of curiosity, not fear,” she says.

She acted decisively and let go of worst-case-scenario thinking, even though the business was on the brink of collapse. Smith diversified Flytographer’s offerings1 by launching new lines of business, including an online travel merchandise store and professional headshot services. Before long, Flytographer was turning a profit, and the company is on track to double pre-COVID revenue in 2023.

“As a business leader, I’m proud to be ambitious,” Smith says. “Those moments of self-doubt are always going to be there. But you have to keep moving forward and realize that, in time, leading with courage will get you to the other side.”

We’ve moved on from mid-2020, when Roslansky and Smith were facing their moments of crisis, but current times are unpredictable in new ways — and inevitably, there will be other challenging times in years ahead.

“Uncertainty is always scary, but opportunity often comes from that uncertainty,” says EY-Parthenon’s Daco. “You really have to focus on building resilience in this type of environment. I encourage proactive decision-making at every level of a business. If you’re able to do that across cost, pricing and talent, you’ll emerge from the situation with a lot more dynamism.”


Two entrepreneurial-minded leaders turned unconventional situations into unexpected success.

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