How Covid Has Made Start-Ups Of Us All.

Nothing forces a pivot of leadership like a global pandemic. In political leadership, this past year has seen some spectacular examples of successful leadership pivots along with some abject failures. Remember the scathing rebukes that Trump did not acknowledge the seriousness of the pandemic early enough, that Johnson showed more concern for the consistency of his ruffled hair than the consistency of his coronavirus guidance. Alternatively, consider the acclaim for the straight-talking empathetic leadership shown by New Zealand’s Prime Minister’s Jacinda Ahern and Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen.

The contrasts seen in politics have echoed in the business world too, with some companies pivoting with great success, while others have held onto legacy behaviours, causing problems for their brands or business.

A positive example is Adam Silver, the commissioner of the USA National Basketball Association (NBA), who back in March 2020 took the then-surprising step of suspending the professional basketball league for the season. Silver’s decision was one of the earliest high-profile responses to the virus outside China. He delivered certainty and decisiveness at a time of great uncertainty and is now acknowledged as one of the few leaders willing to address the issue at the time.

Conversely, you’ll remember Sir Richard Branson’s pleas to the UK government from his private island in the Caribbean, seeking a bailout of Virgin Atlantic, to the tune of £500m. JD Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin also attracted criticism for attacking the government’s decision to close pubs, initially saying he wouldn’t pay employees. He eventually relented and furloughing staff, but not before widescale calls to boycott the brand over its failure to adapt and respond. Sadly, there have been so many examples of poor business leadership that then Ph.D. student Dr. Catherine Oliver, collated the now famous spreadsheet on all companies who refused to pivot.

But it’s not just about business leaders doing right or wrong during Covid. Pivoting in response to the market and world conditions is often a far more subtle thing. Take for example, the recent research showing that employees overwhelmingly prefer working remotely. Companies have reported that productivity hasn’t taken a huge hit over this time and the opportunity to save significant amounts of money on overheads with a remote workforce is clear. Despite this, some employers are still chomping at the bit to get their workers back into the office, sometimes using pressure to do so. Surprisingly, it’s not just traditional business models getting caught out, even digital giants like Facebook have come under fire for pressing staff to return to the office.

Conversely, some businesses have managed to successfully pivot over this time. Take OpenTable as an example, who read the market at the start of the pandemic and identified how the coronavirus lockdown meant supermarkets were being swamped with shoppers. They saw that social distancing meant there were long waits just to get in the door at most supermarkets, so they took their restaurant booking technology and expanded its offering to let users reserve timeslots for grocery shopping.

New York-based company AirCompany launched its carbon-negative vodka last year, but in response to Covid, the company shifted its production to hand sanitiser. The company captured CO2 pollution, combined it with water to make alcohol, then distilled the final product using solar-powered equipment.
There are hundreds of other examples of companies that have pivoted their manufacturing, products, processes, and structures to respond to the new world, but thousands who have not.

“There’s no going back to normal after this crisis”

– Megan Reitz, professor of leadership and dialogue at Hult International Business School

Simon Sinek suggests that companies who are struggling at this time are relying on what they’ve always done in this new environment.

“The companies that are doing a good job of pivoting are saying: ‘OK, throw the old playbook out and let’s pretend we’re a start-up. How would we start up our business today?’

Sinek’s uses Tesla to make his point. “You would think car companies would be ahead because they know how to build a car, but that was the problem. They took what they used to know and tried to make an electric car. Tesla started from scratch and said: ‘We don’t know anything about how to make a car. What would we do if we’re starting now?’ And it turns out it’s like five years ahead of everybody.”

So how can leaders think like a start-up? What qualities do you need to ensure you stay ahead of the game? What are the new skills of new generation businesses?

We’ve put together the skills we think are essential to think like a start-up for the next-generation leader.

1) Resilience
The world that we live in now means that leaders must be able to make sound, complex decisions, in a backdrop of uncertainty and ambiguity. Leaders need to develop strategies to adapt easily to changing circumstances, deal with stress, thrive in adversity, and prevent the paralysis of risk aversion. A good example of resilience in adversity is Côte, high street restaurant chain who diversified quickly during lockdown to launch a new brand Côte At Home and continue to run a food and beverage business, but in a very different way.

2) Growth Mindset & Self-Awareness
The mindset of being open to learning and eager to develop skills and techniques is key to being comfortable and in control in challenging situations. Spend time doing a deep dive into your strengths and acknowledging when you’re not the best person for the job. Develop your critical thinking skills and intuition, to make sound judgments and better business decisions. 

3) Spotting future trends/managing today vs leading the future
There’s a skill in cultivating a future-proof business approach whilst keeping your people on track to deliver today. It starts with the ability to scan the marketplace and identify the new trends coming. It then requires an understanding of the external and internal influences on your business. The ability to be proactive rather than reactive with your knowledge and experience will let you get ahead of the game and create change before change is forced upon you. operating system got a boost from millions of people working from home so pivoted to create more resources for remote teams. Through a new portal with resources for remote teams, including tips on collaboration and organisation

4) Inclusive leadership and culture of cognitive diversity
New generation leaders are embracing diversity with both hands and building inclusive work environments as a matter of course. Authentically listening to and leveraging the views, opinions, working styles, and backgrounds of your team is critical to positive business outcomes. Reflect back on the businesses that have attracted criticism over their Covid policies. The lack of listening to staff has been a key flaw in many of these companies. New generation leaders also recognise the important commercial advantages of having cognitive diversity in your team and understand what inclusivity really means on the ground and how to achieve it.

5) Tech Savvy Leader
There’s no escaping the advance of technology. It’s been a powerful enabler for disruption in the marketplace. Just look at how quickly companies with no digital presence pre Covid, quickly developed one during lockdown. Developing your own robust intelligence around technology is key, as is analysing the opportunities to use it for your business and your customers. You’ll need the ability to delve beneath data to understand your customer drivers, and to identify the opportunities that will transform the business, your people and your customers.

6) Collaborative mindset and harnessing the talent.
A real strength for any next-generation leaders is their ability to identify the contribution and impact that those around them bring to the table. Internally, this is about recruiting and developing the right talent, while externally helping you to leverage a collaborative mindset and even cooperate with competitors if necessary. Remember how Burger King actively promoted its competitors during lockdown? It recognised the bigger issue of people’s livelihoods at risk and responded accordingly. Burger King recognised and challenged the traditional barriers to collaboration, with a leadership style that supported not just innovation, but the entire food and beverage sector.

7) Conscious Leader-People/Planet/Profit/Purpose
New generation leaders take their people with them as they make a positive impact on the world around them. Building a culture that encourages positive long-terms behaviours is key, as is understanding the power of ethical leadership on the satisfaction and loyalty of customers, shareholders, employees, and the public. Campbell’s Soup donated a million pounds to charity through the pandemic. They showed a strong understanding of how their business impacts the planet, and how as an ethical leader you can deliver on both profit and purpose

How Culture Consultancy Can Help Futureproof Your Leadership

Future-proofing businesses, staving off disruptors, and delivering agile innovative responses require a new type of leadership; one which embraces the new world in which we live with all its ambiguity and delivers success no matter what the challenges.

At Culture Consultancy, we have a range of flexible solutions, designed to provide an overview of the challenges facing tomorrow’s leaders and explore some of the tools and techniques to future-fit their leadership approach.
We can work with an existing team leadership team who are looking to build their collective skills to enhance group results or with individuals who seek to understand the skills they need to become future-fit leaders.

Some of the topics we cover include:

  • Collaborative Mindsets – breaking down barriers and traditional structures to create and maintain innovation.
  • Harnessing the talent of your team.
  • Conscious and ethical leadership.
  • Storytelling and effective communicating – organise thoughts and data into a narrative, to create a clear mission with strategies and inspire motivation in your team.
  • Cognitive diversity for leaders.
  • Developing transparency and showing awareness for any uncertainties to build authenticity and trust.
  • Managing today vs leading the future.


About Culture Consultancy

We are experts in organisational culture, leadership, and human behaviour change; a team of practitioners who all believe in the impact people and culture have on business performance. We have a wealth of business leadership experience which ensures we bring you the best in thought leadership and tangible action to fuel your business results.

We’re business results led; people engagement focused.
Our methodology has been developed from the ground up, based on real business experience and understanding of what does and doesn’t work when it comes to the impact people have on business. Not all culture alignment requires the same solutions; our flexible approach underpinned by our proven methodology assures you of designing and embedding a culture that supports the delivery of your business strategy or organisation transformation.

Ready to become a Next Generation Leader?

Find out more about how we we can support your business through uncertainty and disruption. 


Jo Geraghty
Jo is a Director and Co-Founder of Culture Consultancy, specialising in cultural change and employee experience. She is a regular speaker, author and guest lecturer, and a champion of women in business. 
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