The Never-Ending ‘Crisis’

Brexit drama drags on. How smart leadership and a positive culture can help organizations through even the longest of uncertainties.

On Friday the UK Parliament again voted down the a Brexit deal that UK Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated with the European Union. The vote leaves the UK in a simlar position as when Korn Ferry wrote about the situation two weeks ago: leave the EU without a deal, ask for a deadline extension, or go back to the drawing board. It's another reminder that UK leaders have to stay focus their organizations and themselves on long-term objectives.

Nearly three years running and still no answer.

The UK Parliament rejected the latest Brexit offer Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated. On Wednesday the legislative body said the UK wouldn't leave the European Union unless there was a deal covering immigration, trade, and other issues in place. Finally on Thursday UK politicians agreed to push the actual Brexit deadline to April 12 from its current date of March 29. 

But even with the “crisis” dragging on, the UK’s economy is still doing OK. Economists say that Brexit has dampened growth, but the main drivers of the nation’s economy—services, production, manufacturing, and construction—all grew in January and, for the most part, have been growing since the original Brexit vote in June 2016. While the growth is slow, it’s still growth. Unemployment, meanwhile, is at multi-decade lows. “I think business has been incredibly resilient in the way that people have carried on,” says Sonamara Jeffreys, Korn Ferry’s co-president of EMEA.

While that “carry on” culture may be mocked, it has gotten the UK out of long periods of uncertainty before, including major stagflation in the 1970s. Much like the shock of the first Brexit vote, it was head-turning when, in 1976, Prime Minister Jim Callaghan asked the International Monetary Fund for financial aid. Nevertheless, the UK muddled through the malaise until the 1980s, when the economy rebounded.

That isn’t to say that Brexit limbo hasn’t had its costs, particularly in terms of business opportunities forgone. Executives have postponed projects because they are unsure what rules or regulations will be in place in the near future, or spent money on contingencies that may never be needed. “I think the uncertainty experienced is in another league, and business always has lots of uncertainty,” says Jeffreys.

Experts say that, at this point in the Brexit drama, it’s critical for leaders to focus their firms—and themselves—on the long-term objectives of the company and not get sucked into every vote and maneuver by the UK’s politicians. “Keep thinking of the strategic goals, not what the media says,” says Mary Macleod, a former member of Parliament and head of Korn Ferry’s Government & Public Enterprise practice in London. “Plan around the uncertainty and understand the impact it will have on your business.”

In addition, experts say that the Brexit limbo is a chance to review whether an organization is particularly nimble. Does a firm have a flexible decision-making process that can help it succeed in a fast-changing environment? Does it have agile employees empowered to innovate and make changes? If the answer is no, then leaders can work on building those critical features into the organization now.

The lack of clarity in any business can, of course, make workers uneasy. But Macleod believes that’s where superior leaders can make a world of positive difference. In particular, that means understanding what your people need to get their jobs done. “Listen to them,” she says. “Give people certainty that you’re there fighting for them, and at the same time show them that you believe in the possible—that success is just around the corner.”