Has Brexit Hit the Disaster-Prepping Phase?

With no deal in sight, leaders are confronted with a difficult question: how much uncertainty to plan for.

Postpone major decisions.

Cancel flights.

Expect nightmarish traffic.

The EU and UK split-up is still not until the end of next March, but the warnings have already begun--with the British government preparing citizens for a world with no agreement or regulations set between its own country and Europe. Indeed, one memo sounds very much like a disaster-prep, suggesting companies stockpiling goods and products.

To be sure, it's a worse-case scenario a long way from happening. But the drama begs an important question for leaders whether or not they’re impacted by Brexit: How do you plan when nothing about the future is certain? It is something that business leaders increasingly face. The military calls such an environment “volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous,” says Khoi Tu, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry in London. “When you operate in those environments you can’t know the future,” he says. That, in turn, places unusual stresses on executives. 

That doesn’t mean you can’t prepare for future events that pop up like a jack-in-the-box. “Leadership is shifting increasingly into the unknown,” says Tu. Put another way; uncertainty goes with the territory of being a leader more often today. What differentiates the companies that win from the companies that lose is agility, he says.

Agility takes many forms. For instance, there is agility of a company, which is the ability to do things differently. Then there is also the mental agility to sense a change in the market and recognize weak and strong signals, and then decide to execute a plan quickly at the right levels. “What sits in the middle of all those areas is leaders,” says Tu. 

One crucial agility for the leader is learning agility, confronting an uncertain situation with confidence and adapting. For many people, that situation can be uncomfortable because you might not know the answer to the problem. Instead, the leader must be able to say to themselves confidently, ‘I might not know the answer, but I am sure I can get the answer.’ Part of making that happen is creating a work environment where other people can be effective in identifying solutions.

Having agile leaders to lean on is good, but so is changing the organization. “You must build in agility and operational resilience,” says Dominic Schofield, senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Board & CEO Services practice. He points to something the UK government created, known as COBRA, an acronym for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A. It is a multi-departmental emergency committee set up to tackle whatever crisis the country faces, be that terrorism, fuel shortages, or epidemic disease. 

COBRA meets whenever a crisis presents itself. It then quickly assesses the situation, makes decisions and then acts with speed. In other words, it got built into the system, which is something that companies might consider copying for themselves. “Maybe every company should have their own COBRA,” Schofield says.