Business resiliente

13/07/2020

Thought leadership in the start-up ecosystem

by Natasha Aleksandrov and Federico Sbandi, Brunswick Group
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Purpose: People and Planet in the center

Being a thought leader means being recognised as an influential voice in your sector and/or area of your specialisation.

But we would go a little further than the narrowest meaning: we increasingly consider thought leaders to be a leader and a company that have a positive impact on society as a whole, in the present and in the future. In this sense, the thought leader has a clear short and long-term vision that implies economic-financial sustainability alongside social and environmental sustainability, with people and the planet at the centre of its strategy.

It can be difficult for a start-up to think about this: it has to focus on finding investors, feasibility, scalability, economic sustainability, its services and products to be developed and promoted, etc.. However, it also needs to take the time to think about its long-term positioning, the reputation it wants to establish; and if time is not the issue, then maybe it is a cultural factor because perhaps the importance of a strong, long-lasting positioning is not immediately clear, requiring a new mindset, or merely someone who can tell you what it means and gives you some examples.

Let’s take a look at three areas: purpose, crisis preparedness and action.

Thought Leadership and Purpose

This long-term vision placing people and the planet at the heart of business decisions is purpose.

What role does the company/leadership team want to play in society now and in the future in terms of its positive impact on society? What are the values that motivate the company and its leaders? These questions have to be answered to clarify your purpose. It is not easy but it has to be done, right from the start of the company’s existence.

What are some of the necessary ingredients?

Listening
Listening to the market and society, your collaborators and partners, customers and other audiences to understand both how to position yourself in business terms but also how to respond to society’s overall needs and requirements is essential. There are various types of listening and analyses, from the more traditional surveys to focus groups and one-to-one interviews. Understanding how better to match your business object to your long-term vision is essential to developing a long-term positioning strategy.

Collaboration
Successful companies, and their leadership teams, are collaborative: they are transparent about sharing their objectives, strategies and results with their collaborators. They can operate in a complex ecosystem and can dialogue and exchange ideas. Therefore, the traditional pyramid hierarchy must give way to horizontal teams that both work in their specialisation areas but are also kept abreast of their co-workers’ activities and also intervene and listen to other people’s opinions to ensure constant improvement. This is the only way to increase empowerment and create a climate of multi-directional trust.

Training
You never stop learning. You study and learn throughout your life. A job for life no longer exists or the possibility to specialise in just one thing for ever. People involved in start-ups are well aware of this: if one idea does not work, you try another and then another. If at first you don’t succeed, you try and try again. And even when you are successful, you can’t rest on your laurels but must continue to refresh your skills, to have very cross-sector skills to best respond to the constant rapid change. You may sell your business and go elsewhere, or start again from scratch. Or you may even run several businesses, benefiting from all the activities you carry out in terms of mindset and networking, learning from everyone and putting your new skills to use in all the areas you work in.

Inclusion
A company cannot exist without inclusion. Inclusion & Diversity encompasses a wide-ranging culture of equal opportunities. Lip service is not enough: you must act and do it well. You can’t simply have employees of different ethnic backgrounds or sexual orientation, half women and half men. Inclusion is the ability to attract and retain people who differ from each other, who represent  the most varied points of view: ethnicity and sexual orientation, religion and disability, personality and age, background and education, etc.. You must be able to listen and create diversified work teams that can interpret, for instance, local, religious, generational, values and emotional viewpoints to enhance each team member’s talent and to make each person feel not just important but essential.

Sustainability
There is no company that does not care for the environment. Environmental sustainability has to be an integral part of business and not a secondary consideration.  Each individual business activity must be considered in the context of protecting the planet. And we can go beyond this: the start-up’s product or service may contribute to protecting the local area and the environment, and then, than ever, the business strategy and the environmental sustainability strategy intertwine to become one.

This must also be true of people and society: each business activity must be considered in the context of protecting and enhancing the value of the individual; moreover, the product or service may be of use to society and then the business strategy and the social sustainability strategy become the same thing.

The success of leadership and the company lies in communicating these principles to the internal and external stakeholders, with a short and long-term structured communication strategy that considers the value of the content, the ability to listen and dialogue and a multi-channel approach based on clear objectives and targets.

Thought Leadership and Crisis Preparedness

What makes a company or a leadership even more resilient over time? The ability to adapt tochange, especially in a crisis or challenging situation.

The ability to prepare for a crisis, to deal with it and come out on the other side is fundamental for all companies of all sizes.

How can you prepare for a crisis?

Mapping stakeholders
Gaining an understanding of who your key stakeholders are, not just the targets considered in your business plan but the entire ecosystem that rotates around you, is essential to knowing who your current and potential stakeholders are in a crisis: collaborators and employees, customers and suppliers, partners and associations, universities and institutions, banks and governments ...

Mapping risks
What risks might you come across on your path towards success? What potential crises could impact your reputation? Mapping potential risks is essential to be prepared. There are many types of risks and we have listed just a few here: economic or financial risks, disputes, business downturns, communication errors, cyber-attacks, pandemics, etc..

Scenario Planning
Once you have identified your risks, you need a mitigation strategy: imagine the situation, decide on your general approach (for example, proactive or reactive), prepare short transparent key messages for each one, like a draft press release and social media communiques, adjusting the content to each platform, the tone and the number of characters).

Crisis Team
You must clearly identify the members of your crisis team, who may be assisted by expert consultants. Ideally, the team should include a core team covering all the most strategic roles and its members should have clearly defined roles and duties. You could also have additional teams for specific crises (e.g., an IT team is essential for a cyber attack).

Simulations      
Preparedness means trial runs. Testing the crisis team’s skills, such as scenario planning and internal procedures, is essential to being ready. Imagining how it would be to find yourself mid crisis and how you would react is like actually being in a crisis situation. This simulation helps you to hone your ability to deal with complex situations, identify your key reference people during an emergency and bolster your internal procedures if they are not adequately robust.

Thought leadership and Action

A leader is now ready  to establish his position in the world, and that of their organisation and to voice his leadership. To have a real impact on society, leadership must firstly be listened to and understood at the right time and place.

Once you have mapped your reference audience, the traditional communication rules apply. Each audience can be reached using different channels and each channel can have different content. The leader and the organisation shall define the thought leadership.

What are some examples of thought leadership in action?

Vision
In ancient Greece, the ars oratoria was a fundamental tool in carving out a social and political career. The better the orator was in communicating their message with skills that go beyond the actual message, the more effective the transfer of information. For a leader, the art of public speaking and audience engagement gives them greater access to people’s imagination in order to channel content and suggest future actions. Sharing ideas, values and a vision of the future is possible on physical and digital stages because they allow the speaker to engage and transport both present and future audiences. An example of this is Bill Gates’ speech in 2014 on the TEDx stage entitled “The next outbreak? We’re not ready” [link blank page a https://bit.ly/3h5PovA]. The CEO of Microsoft gave a clinical presentation of what would happen when the novel Coronavirus hit the world.

Product
Product thought leadership encompasses an organisation’s ability to spark innovation in production processes and particularly in operations to optimise work flows and make a change in people’s lives. During the pandemic, the scarcity of personal protective equipment and technical equipment for the healthcare facilities saw many companies partly convert their production to purposes very different to their normal business activities. Alongside other companies, Ferrari commenced the production of valves for respirators and fittings for protective masks, converting technologies used to manufacture cars [link a https://bit.ly/32mJqCa].

Movement
One of the highest and most ambitious forms of thought leadership is the ability to mobilise people and unite them behind a single idea. One extremely positive aspect of the pandemic and the lockdown that affected the global population that we can all rejoice in is our ability to remain human and close to each other even when social distancing and the “house arrest” situation dominated our daily life. When the lockdown started, BP started up the movement “#InThisTogether, many voices one purpose” [link athttps://on.bp.com/3gXHHaG] to share the stories of people’s resilience as they fought Covid-19 day after day.

Organisation
How a company manages its resources and creates innovation in its organisation may set a standard on the market and in the imagination of its audiences and this standard can make the company a thought leader. Current reality has meant that the term “work from home” is now a common expression for all those companies that have been able to ensure their collaborators could work from home during the lockdown. Speed and agility in adopting this new model to manage resources from a distance has contributed to companies’ flexibility. Companies have emerged as thought leaders on this issue, raising the bar to heights unforeseeable a year earlier. In May, Twitter announced that its employees can work from home for ever [https://bit.ly/3eAcwRh].

Investments
Words must be followed by action to validate to your positions and ideas. In our society, the ability to earmark large amounts of money to generate real change in our community implies greater strength of our thought leadership. This is the case of companies, mainly the large corporations, that have donated large amounts after George Floyd’s death to support people, initiatives and associations in the United States linked to the Black community. Ramon Laguarta, CEO of PepsiCo, announced a USD400 million project to hire new Black talents, to consolidate the company’s partnerships with historically Black US universities and to invest in Black-owned small businesses in an article on LinkedIn [https://bit.ly/2DPiCQX].