The New Year is upon us but for some companies, 2024 will be challenging. The latest CBI economic forecast predicts the UK is set for another year of weak growth in 2024[i]. Following GDP growth of 0.6% in 2023, the CBI expects 0.8% growth in 2024, picking up to 1.6% in 2025.
As well as the economic challenges, SMEs are navigating ongoing skills shortages and retention issues, as well as concerns around employee mental health and burnout, plus the impact of technology especially AI on their business[ii].
One consequence is that business leaders are behaving in a more risk-averse way as they try to take control of an increasingly uncertain and volatile landscape. This leads to a high-demand and low-control environment – a recipe for stress and burnout for staff.
In this article, Graham Clark, Managing Director, OCM Enable looks at how SME leaders can develop the right approach and behaviours to run successful businesses in 2024, regardless of the economic and business challenges.
How business leaders can adapt
Today’s business environment can be neatly summed up with the acronym VUCA – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous – which is making many leaders feel helpless and insecure. While “VUCA” was first coined in 1987, it accurately describes the current business environment.
The issue is that many leaders are under pressure but lack the knowledge or the time to develop and practise new ways of working. They know they should be addressing their challenges but cannot find the time so end up focusing on solving short-term ‘crises’ rather than taking the longer view.
To manage this complexity and drive change, requires traditional ways of leading to be reassessed. Agile leadership, which holds flexibility, values, and clarity at its core, is essential when navigating a VUCA world.
This requires leaders to retain the ability to execute effectively but also be in ‘experimental’ mode from time to time. Understanding different situations require diverse ways to navigate them is critical to turning ‘volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity’ into a competitive advantage.
We suggest turning the VUCA acronym on its head to focus on the solution, not the problem, so leaders might what to instead think about VUCA as Visionary, Unconstrained, Considerate and Authoritative.
This is not intended to be a ‘catch-all’ description of what it takes to be a great leader but a timely reminder of how a leader can maximise the opportunities a VUCA world brings and minimise the risks.
How to become a VUCA leader
While it is easy to fall into the trap of only focusing on the short term in uncertain times, to maintain Vision, VUCA leaders must constantly put forward a clear, compelling purpose and direction for the team and the wider organisation. They need to tell a story, tell it well and often.
This should emphasise what the business is aiming to achieve, what impact they want to have, why this is exciting and how employees will benefit. Leaders should adapt the way they communicate this Vision to different people based on insight into their audience’s needs and concerns. The team needs to feel that the vision is the right one – it needs to be ‘sold’ as well as ‘told.’
To thrive in a VUCA world, it is important for leaders to be flexible, adaptable, and open to new ways of doing things. This means not being constrained by their organisation’s current processes and structures. It also requires the need to try innovative approaches, take calculated risks and dedicate resources to finding new ways to tackle things.
Organisations and leaders who capitalise on the opportunities that change brings are constantly looking for innovation within their organisation and from outside. They often bring disparate ideas together in ways that have not been done before. True innovation is about creativity and execution. It is not just about finding fresh ideas – it is about rigorous analysis, planning and practical application.
Operating in a VUCA world can be scary. The lack of certainty and being asked to change makes most people anxious. Additionally, stress levels may already be high from the pressures the team are under just trying to do the day job. VUCA leaders take time to get to know people and their values, needs and concerns – reaching out to the different constituencies within the wider organisation. They listen and understand with openness, respect, and concern, and ask for change with sensitivity because they have insight into their teams’ world, their values and the pressures they are under.
This is not about ‘my way or the highway’, VUCA leaders demonstrate confidence in their skills, versatility and capability, and confidence in the potential of their organisation to thrive in a VUCA world. They also know their own personal limitations. They are open about these limitations and their personal development needs as well as how the team could do a better job. They know part of being considerate is to be clear about the changes needed and to make tough decisions kindly if people cannot adapt.
Embracing a VUCA perspective, redefined as ‘Visionary, Unrestrained, Considerate, and Authoritative’ can equip leaders to steer their teams effectively through turbulent times. It is not just about identifying problems but adopting innovative solutions, developing open communication, and demonstrating empathy while maintaining confidence and adaptability. By embodying these qualities, leaders can navigate economic and business complexities, capitalise on new opportunities, and lead their teams towards success.