How Midsize Businesses Leaders Turn Extreme Stress Into Grit And Creativity

Dreams are powerful. They inspire every company founder to lead their business with a clear purpose and vision. But over time, those visions sometimes become diluted and obscured as tough times set in.

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to forget dreaming when facing extreme stress from uncertainty and constant disruption. Business leaders, as well as their employees, can become so preoccupied with firefighting that no time is left to ensure the business is on the right track and aligned with the greater goals of society.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Instead, leaders can turn that extreme stress into grit and creativity by embracing four fundamental lessons in business management.

Lesson #1: Accept reality

First and foremost, leaders must resist waiting for circumstances to return to normal. Moments of big change are career-making chances to take a step back, refocus the organization, and seize new opportunities – even when sacrifices are required.

The recent pandemic is a prime example of such an occasion. In a rush to shelter in place, established ways of working were overturned, from work-from-home arrangements and remote customer engagement to manufacturing operations running with on-site skeleton crews.

Let’s face it: your business will not go back to “normal”. It’s time to seize on disruption and mix the best of the new with the best of the old. This may include office space and cost savings from reduced travel, higher productivity for some types of roles, and a higher appreciation of flexible approaches to customer delivery and support. Those who are most agile in reaping these advantages will grab market share from those who don’t adapt fast enough.

Lesson #2: Build resilience everywhere

Living with ambiguity is uncomfortable and drives people to seek out certainty. It’s seductive to listen to confident predictions about the future. But the reality is that nobody knows what is going to happen next. Your plan has to be about gaining flexibility and pivoting quickly as the world changes around you.

In today’s economic and social climate, historical trends and long-term financial plans aren’t reliable enough to guide the business. Organizations need to build scenarios, pay close attention to leading indicators, and choose paths that maximize future options.

As ever, putting your company’s vision and the customer experience at the heart of everything you do is the most reliable way to keep up with the twists and turns of changing behaviors, market dynamics, and fluctuating supply chains.

Lesson #3: Inspire cooperation and trust

During times of stress, people’s demeanor change. Patience runs short. Tempers flare when expectations are not met. Some people find it hard to stay concentrated, while others bury themselves in their work like never before.

For the health of the business, leaders must first consider the well-being of their employees. This mind-set follows the principle of humanity, created by the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. He wrote, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”

As data-driven as businesses are, the hard numbers say that soft skills like empathy, leadership, and creativity matter most. Only people can help the company adapt – and they’ll only do that if they feel understood, supported, and rewarded.

Better employee engagement boosts efficiency, lowers turnover, and helps you hire the best employees and pay more while still making higher profits. Most importantly, customer satisfaction is highly correlated with employee satisfaction: the better you treat your employees, the more satisfied your customers are likely to be.

Lesson #4: Drive recovery with strategic technology enablement

Technology remains a key to thriving and surviving. While last year was the best time to implement the latest digital tools designed to navigate today’s disruptions, the next best opportunity is now. Don’t let a good crisis go to waste: there’s never been a better time to augment core competencies with flexibility and agility.

For example, many midsize businesses are implementing cloud-based solutions that make it easier and faster to gather and analyze the data you need to navigate treacherous market conditions. This technology allows decision-makers to perform continuous scenario planning to detect new market patterns and drill into evolving drivers behind key metrics.

Making the right trade-offs to find an edge

Business leaders no longer have a choice between focusing on revenue growth or managing with humanity. Now more than ever, customers have the final say, and surveys show that they are flocking to brands that demonstrate workforce fairness, service reliability, and trustworthiness.

Building a powerful reputation has to start from the top of the organizational chart for midsize companies. Leaders that can connect high-level dreams and purpose with everyday complexity – with a combination of both grit and creativity – will ultimately succeed, no matter how uncertain and disruptive current conditions may be.

[This blog first appears on Forbes. For real-world examples of small and medium-sized business leadership, visit]

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