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Generations of your leaders have never experienced a recession in their professional lives.

Are you ready?

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Published on: August 2022

Written by: Bhavik Modi, Fredrik Schuller

When will the recession begin? How bad will it be? The answers to these three questions are anyone’s guess.

What we do know is that a recession is coming – the current geopolitical conditions foretell the future: rapid inflation, spiking interest rates, political unrest, and resulting supply chain issues, as well as the ongoing challenge of a highly contagious virus that will most likely never go away.

The writing is on the wall. At some point, the economic cycle will turn, and the economy will begin to decline or continue to stall.

Recessions happen all the time, it’s a normal part of the economic cycle. However, what’s particularly interesting about this environment is that it will likely be the first recession that members of Gen-Z and most Millennials have ever experienced – that is, aside from the initial shock of Covid-19 pandemic. Any Covid-induced economic shrinkage was more of a disruption than a true recession. This type of downturn can be described as “V-shaped,” or characterized by a short duration and swift recovery (for example, Western economies’ post-pandemic growth, driven by lower interest rates, constrained supply, and government stimulus).

Under the current economic conditions, the recession ahead is classic both in the sense that companies are cutting costs and delaying investment in anticipation, and that its causes can be attributed to external factors. Younger leaders are facing a new, but not entirely unfamiliar, challenge.

Over the past few years, Millennial and Gen-Z leaders have risen through the ranks, taking on significant leadership roles across all industries. During the pandemic, these leaders leveraged their tech savviness to weather the challenges of working from home and the shift to a hybrid-virtual environment. Now, new generations of managers and leaders will experience this set of recessionary economic conditions for the first time, and it’s impossible to predict what will happen.

What we do know is that a recession can change many things, from the obvious to the less obvious. Let’s start with the obvious. Companies will quickly look for ways to conserve cash and protect margins, which often means slowing spending, layoffs, and restructuring to cut costs. Tech companies that boomed during the pandemic have started to reduce spending and announcing hiring freezes, signaling for companies in other industries to do the same. Jobs will be at risk. If you cannot prove a good ROI, your project is at risk. There are no longer unlimited resources to try out new ideas, and emphasis shifts from growth to profitability at all costs. An increase in uncertainty will make companies more conservative and tentative. All these are well-known dynamics.

Less obvious is the impact of increased uncertainty on people. Coupled with rising fear in general, volatility is the name of the game. Your investments just lost a lot of value. High inflation means that your purchasing power, and the new house that you stretched for, are declining in value. You’re worrying about your job, or are not getting the bonus you banked on.

The combination of fear and an increase in messy information escalates your “cognitive load,” or the need to tap into your cortex. Responses triggered by fear force you to call on more ancient and less intelligent parts of your brain, effectively reducing your IQ and decreasing the thoughtfulness of your decision making. The solution? While your brain is triggered to respond with its most animalistic “fight or flight” parts, you need to be smarter about navigating your new work and home life.

What are the implications of this on organizations? For one, fear responses may decrease teamwork and collaboration while increasing peoples’ self-interest (aka – the burning need to keep their job). At a time when teamwork and tapping into everyone’s intelligence is more important than ever, external stresses will likely drive your team to be less than their best.

Given this understanding, as a leader, what are you doing to build resilience in your teams? How will you help them tackle this uncertainty and thrive? Resilience can be built on both an individual and team level through intentional coaching and practice. Cultivating these behaviors not only builds a better workplace culture — it also gives your people the tools to bounce back.

You may also need to develop a recession playbook that helps you map out how you’ll support your people while also driving the business forward. It’s no easy feat, but remains critical as you move forward during this challenging period.

One practice we know helps build team and organizational resilience is something we call Future Storming. Future Storming is the process of preparing your business leaders from the “future-back” rather than “today-forward.” This means anticipating trends that have yet to occur and envisioning how they might intersect in surprising ways. This exercise, which can be practiced by leaders at all levels, helps them build the capacity to navigate uncertainty, strengthen collaboration with diverse stakeholders, and bolster your business’ capability to manage risk and uncertainty.

For example, you can run Future Storming exercises where your team thinks holistically across business silos about where the industry, customer trends, technology, and competition will be three, five, or ten years in the future. As your team evaluates the intersection of these trends, they build the capacity to mitigate risk and uncover insights that provide opportunities for innovation. The focus on opportunities is essential, as recessions can be rocket fuel for disruptive ideas and startups. Furthermore, customer buying criteria changes during recessions, and can upend traditional relationships.

A good example of this disruption is Airbnb, which was born during the 2009 subprime mortgage crisis. In a time when many were strapped for cash, but had a few extra rooms to spare, it offered people the opportunity to gain an extra source of income by renting out their extra rooms or vacation homes. By injecting a new supply of affordable short-term rentals into the market, Airbnb disrupted the hotel industry and drove down hotel costs. The hospitality industry was already primed for disruption; the recession was just the multiplier.

In the next recession, which new, disruptive companies will thrive, and why?

Lastly, how can you empower the new generation of leaders to drive the cost and cash flow initiatives needed in your organization? Your team needs to be capable of contributing to improved cash flow ahead of time or just in time. This requires strong business and financial acumen to understand how their decisions will need to change in tighter times to free up cash and realize better margins or returns, while simultaneously continue innovating and testing out new ideas to drive the business forward.

Are your young leaders ready and capable of doing this? Have you developed them to be effective in such a scenario? Up until now, Gen-Z and Millennial leaders have focused almost exclusively on growth. Moving forward, they need to focus on margin, cost, asset utilization, and cash flow. While in growth mode, investment dollars for innovation were plentiful, but now disciplined innovation is the name of the game. These leaders need to be prepared to fail fast and cheap, and move with agility towards the better innovations and investments.

In good times, leaders may not be aware of how the decisions they make every day at work impact margins, but in a recession, leaders need to be hyperaware of how they spend time and resources. Furthermore, funding is easy to come by in the name of growth, but in a recession? Not anymore.

Learned future preparation, resilience, and the financial proficiency and confidence to drive cashflow are critical for success in this new environment. By providing tools, expectations, and discipline now, you can inspire your young leaders to take control of the future. Instead of acting rashly when the increase in uncertainty tricks brains into inaction, acting ahead empowers your leaders to drive the improvements required to be successful.

It’s time to get ready. It’s time to prepare your leaders to flourish in tough times. Prepare your team to storm the future by building the resilience and confidence necessary to make good business decisions when they are in the eye of the storm, all in the name of managing through this recession. Better yet, give them the skills to innovate new products, services, and business models to propel your organization forward, and do it all while using the smart part of your brains.

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