COVID 19 is a daunting prospect; it may not kill you, but there’s a real chance it will be the death knell for your corporate career because the economic contagion has joined forces with the epidemiological to create a perfect storm.
To understand why, you have to understand the lifecycle of business – and entrepreneurship. You can do it yourself. Draw an insane squiggle on the left-hand side of the paper. Then, without lifting the pen from the paper move right squiggling less, and finally let your pen move on a flat trajectory to the right-hand margin of the page.
That’s the lifestyle of a business. It begins as an entrepreneur’s dream, a vision, that seeks an answer to something we need. We call this creativity. The dream moves to the middle phase where through trial and error it may make it into a something real that adds value to people. We call this innovation – it provides a relevant answer to a problem. The final phase on the page is the corporatisation of the dream into the smooth line of the algorithms of efficiency and scalability; beyond a product into a fully-formed and growing business.
All of a sudden there are accountants and logistic specialists, managers, supervisors… Their mantra is efficiency, reliability, scalability, stability, making money, KPIs reports; all the tools and paraphernalia of managing, making things work and making profits. But the seeds of destruction are in the corporate edifice. because one of two things happens: either the product they are making becomes irrelevant – which we are seeing more and more in our inexorable transition through the digital innovation of the fourth industrial revolution – or the context changes.
COVID 19 is possibly the biggest context changer anyone could ever imagine. If companies weren’t equipped for the stress of this disruption, they are either going out of business or being forced to radically adapt, innovate and pivot, which in many cases means retrenching to cut costs. You can see how well South Africa is faring by the reports in the media of business distress – and your own unofficial social media networks as friends and family have their salaries cut or lose their jobs. Perhaps it’s even happening to you.
All of a sudden, the people who were very relevant to a process producing a product that was until recently very relevant now have to cope with becoming irrelevant themselves. How do they survive? They have to learn to innovate, just like the companies they once worked for. It’s substantially difficult. It’s scary too, because they have to unlearn much of what they have done, aspired to and held dear and instead learn new skills.
The good news for all of us, is that we have all the skills we need, and in changing we are building ourselves for the new future.
The former corporates have to take a leaf from the creatives on the left-hand side of the page, which is tricky because most corporate types treat creatives with disdain; long-haired wasters in dreamland. It’s a sentiment that is often just as passionately reciprocated by the creatives who stereotype the corporates are soulless suits, tickling boxes and watching the bottom line. They’re both wrong, because they’re actually more alike than they care to admit: the discipline involved in creativity, getting something right through micro adjustments until it is perfect is the same discipline that’s needed on the right hand side of the page, making sure everything works every time all the time down a hierarchy of systems and people.
Now though the playing fields have been levelled. Welcome to the precariat; the world of the gig economy, job insecurity and under-employment – or maybe not. If you find yourself there, prepare for the worst. Entering a hostile environment means you don’t carry stuff with you that you don’t need, so if you get a severance package, use as much as you can to get rid of debt. Do a Mary Kondo on yourself and declutter your life to give yourself less overheads and a little more runway.
The next thing is to break the paralysis of fear. We tend to fear fear itself, not the thing that makes us anxious. Take a deep breath and recognise it for what it is. It’s logical to be scared but the one thing that derails you is fear of the unknown: things aren’t going to be the same, you are going to lose things that you once thought were very important. It’s a little like surviving a sinking ship, now you’re bobbing in the water in your life jacket, but the point is you’re alive, you didn’t go down with the ship.
If there was ever a time to reflect, it’s now. As you do, you’ll realise that in your journey to date, you’ve upskilled on your corporate talents and downscaled on your adaptability and flexibility. But like a muscle you haven’t used, it doesn’t mean you’ve lost your creativity and ability to innovate, it just needs to rebuild. So, think about what your skills are, not the one that you were last employed for, but the real talents that underpinned them.
Start taking a leaf out of the entrepreneurs’ book; start thinking about what it is that you can do, what you can supply and whether there is a need for this and where. The networks that were so important in the corporate environment are even more important now because people aren’t going to be coming past your front door (especially not in a time of COVID), you need that connectivity to put you in touch with opportunities. Likewise, you need to be prepared to collaborate with people in your network because many hands literally make light work.
The life jacket that is keeping you afloat comprises the new skills that you’re building on top of those you actually forgot you had while you were climbing that greasy pole in corporate. How are you going to be relevant again? Business schools could be a solution for you, teaching both the introspection and the hard skills necessary to be an entrepreneur, to lose the tie and dive into the gig economy – and emerge from the tumultuous waters of the precariat onto firmer ground.
Fight the fear that you’re going to drown. You won’t. The world is changing and right now we don’t what shape or form that will take. In all truth though it probably won’t be too different from what we left behind before the lockdown, there’ll just be a new normal. Like swimming in the ocean where there was a shark every 50 kilometres, now there’s 5 sharks every kilometre.
So how do you swim in shark infested waters? You just have to adopt different safety protocols. The amazing thing is we actually do it all the time, we just normalise it. There are other far more dangerous working environments; like working in nuclear power plants, or on power lines, down mines or out in the bush among wild animals – and yet surprisingly everyone survives.
Whoever we are and whatever has happened to us, we are going to have to adapt to living in a high-risk environment until a vaccine is found or immunity is achieved, but for those of us who have lost our jobs in corporate, in spite of the pain we have to believe in our resilience. It could actually be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So, take a deep breath, surrender a little bit to the moment and go with the current, learn to learn again, be excited to go into the future, turn off your nattering self-doubt, adopt new technologies, reach out, trust in your capacity to adapt and learn – and unlock a new potential in the process.
- Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa.