How to Navigate a Turbulent Environment: 4 Questions Companies Must Answer

Companies and leaders are currently operating in a highly fluid economic and business environment. The mix of complexity and uncertainty means that executives end up confronting a higher volume of reputation-defining moments—coming at a more intense velocity—than they have experienced in more growth-friendly and stable economic cycles.

Already taxed from navigating a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, executives are having to simultaneously juggle how they handle multiple issues including:

  • Geopolitical risks, including the war in Ukraine and growing tensions between the U.S. and China 
  • Inflationary pressure and recession fears creating economic uncertainty
  • Supply chain disruptions still unraveling
  • Divisive political and policy debates and upcoming midterm elections in the U.S. 
  • Structural change to the talent and labor market

It’s no wonder that C-suite leaders are turning to experts inside and outside their organizations to bring forward insights, perspectives and frameworks to help them navigate choppy waters. Four key questions they’re grappling with are:

  1. What Do We Need to Do Now to Be Successful?

As a reputation and corporate communications strategist, I see it as my role to help clients and leadership teams in a handful of discrete ways. 

Our first piece of advice is to simplify the complex. Leaders are tasked with communicating difficult and nuanced decisions to stakeholders who often have competing interests. Those leaders want help taking many pieces of information and putting some kind of organization against that data.

At Mission North, we’re doing a lot of work with our clients to get ahead of these pressures by developing a political and social issues framework that brings structure and criteria to issues. This framework also helps a leadership team understand where issues are likely to arise and have more confidence around when, why and how to engage or not engage.

Each framework is values-led but values alone can’t be the filter on how or when to engage. We attempt to use a 'first principles' approach to guide work like this, breaking things down to the point where they can’t be reduced any further. 

Second, we’re trying to help companies anticipate areas of risk and opportunity. We’re doing a lot of scenario planning to help them get ahead of areas of reputational risk and threats to the business. Part of that exercise is helping executive teams become aware of multiple sides of an issue, not just one. We are challenging them not just on how they see an issue but also how a competitor, customer, employee, policymaker or critic might see it. 

Like everyone else, we’re doing a lot of planning for the remainder of this year and for 2023. While that's a common exercise at this time of year, what’s been different has been a growing emphasis on building in some of these frameworks, assessments and audits to complement the communications programming clients want to focus on. Our clients know they have to be prepared for events that are hard to predict but not impossible to plan for. 

<split-lines>"Leaders are tasked with communicating difficult and nuanced decisions to stakeholders who often have competing interests."<split-lines>

  1. How Should We Best Engage With Our Employees?

Employees have fully emerged as a key stakeholder for companies and leaders to better and more fully understand as they have a bigger voice and greater reach than ever before.

Loyalty, or at least neutrality, used to be a basic expectation employers had of their employees. The deal could be summarized as, 'We pay you for your time and skills and, in return, you show up and trust us to do what’s best for you and the company as a whole.' That bargain has changed fairly dramatically over the past five years and has then been further accelerated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, with downstream effects like The Great Resignation or the The Great Reassessment.

Employees today are as likely to be activists and agitators as they are advocates. It's up to companies and leadership teams to understand what motivates and builds real connection to their teams. It can sound soft and mushy, but you have to have a pulse on what your employees expect in terms of the company’s engagement on a variety of internal and external issues.

As leaders confront tough calls on when or how to engage on a range of topics—both societal and business in nature—they are always right to ask questions such as: 'What do our people expect from us, and how do we consider them in whatever decision we’re about to make? Will our people give us the benefit of the doubt and trust us if we take X or Y action?'

<split-lines>"Employees today are as likely to be activists and agitators as they are advocates. It's up to companies and leadership teams to understand what motivates and builds real connection to their teams."<split-lines>

  1. Which Actions Will Help Propel Us Forwards and Which Will Hold Us Back?

For companies managing a more challenging business environment, their character is really on display when it comes to decision-making and communication. In this sense, how you do things as a leadership team is often as important as what you’re doing. 

A lot of companies have faced some kind of rationalization or realignment around their workforce. We see some companies leading with empathy for their employees and with a sensitivity towards making reductions in their headcount. Unfortunately, there are also plenty of examples of callous, cold leadership that let go of employees en masse over email or a group Zoom meeting.

These are moments where a company’s character is front and center. If your company values state 'We always do what’s right' or 'We put people first,' and then you lay people off in a way that violates the most basic sense of decency, you have created a body of evidence that speaks to a lack of character. What happens when you need to staff up again? Do you get the benefit of the doubt? Will you be able to become a destination for top talent if they believe the leadership team lacks integrity? 

Another reputation-defining moment both private and public companies face is how they communicate the performance of the business. All companies, but especially growth-focused companies, must tell a story that tells investors the organization’s best days lie ahead. You have to place metrics in context, being honest about the nature of any challenges but optimistic in how the company will overcome them.

For venture-backed companies dealing with valuation change or valuation pressure, they need to remind investors about the nature of the problem they are solving and why the world needs the company to solve that issue. They need to tell a story of indispensability and value to the future.  

<split-lines>"For companies managing a more challenging business environment, their character is really on display when it comes to decision-making and communication."<split-lines>

  1. Which Trends Should We Be Paying Attention To?

Here are a few areas we’re seeing emerge and which we are keeping an eye on. 

We have VC clients that see unique opportunities to invest at more attractive valuations and that the talent market is likely to loosen up in ways that can benefit some of their portfolio companies. There are a lot of high-growth companies, particularly ones in enterprise software or cybersecurity, that serve customers in markets that remain relatively stable or recession-proof. Those kinds of companies are likely to win by not losing. 

Sticking with talent as a theme, while some startups may struggle to weather the current environment, there are a number of legacy companies that are hoping to go after technical talent for which they may otherwise not have been able to compete. Some see this as a once-in-a-blue-moon moment. These legacy companies tend to have their own ambitions to be seen as having their best days ahead and are looking to renew interest and excitement in their ability to innovate even as a more mature organization. So they’re out there on the hunt for talent and opportunities in these more uncertain times, using scale, balance sheet strength and potential job security to their advantage. 

Looking ahead, we have some early indications that companies that have been in a pre-IPO posture are hoping to list in mid- to late-2023. While that assumes capital markets steady themselves somewhat, we are already doing some IPO readiness work with companies that want to be prepared for that moment, which of course is a big one to get right. 

<split-lines>"One idea any leader can embrace—whether you’re leading a startup or Fortune 500 company—is that there is always opportunity amidst uncertainty."<split-lines>

In conclusion, one idea any leader can embrace—whether you’re leading a startup or Fortune 500 company—is that there is always opportunity amidst uncertainty. Lead with empathy, know your character is always on display, and remind your stakeholders why your best days are still ahead. There’s no such thing as too much communication around why you matter and the importance of the problem you solve. That’s true in any environment and is especially true today.

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