by Rita Trehan and Ben Laker
As of November 2018, almost two-thirds of firms had failed to complete a Brexit risk assessment. The reality for most businesses, from FTSE 100 juggernauts to UK SMEs, is that preparation for what happens beyond 29 March has taken a back seat to more immediate concerns.
That said, the establishment of planning committees and sub-committees has proliferated on a scale unseen since the doomsday predictions, and the closer you look, the clearer the parallels between now and the Y2K panic almost two decades ago.
What businesses require now, as then, is for leadership to replace uncertainty with clarity. It is folly to operate on the assumption of 20/20 foresight for the situation which lies ahead, something that has never looked likely at any stage of the Brexit negotiation process. The time has come for business leaders to act rationally with all available information, and with great prudence and much urgency.
In my experience with many top CEOs of Fortune 200 organisations, leaders fall broadly fall into two categories: those who eschew the need to act, fail to prepare for all eventualities, and ignore the importance of optionality, and those who understand the importance of capitalising on opportunities while managing risk. Brexit is a process, not an event. So as the negotiations in Brussels continue to stall, and party in-fighting gives way to splintering and splits, leadership must stay focused and businesses must not be distracted by the growing sense of chaos.
Whether you call it “contingency planning” or “futureproofing”, I urge every CEO to consider the following as we continue through Brexit uncertainty.
Reset your strategy
It is imperative to re-evaluate long-term goals and ambitions amid the rapidly changing landscape. Wargaming how the future might look, without tying yourself to a specific outcome, will enable you to identify areas of risks and opportunities in your current business plan. Having some advance idea of which levers to pull will make your business nimble. Developing heatmaps outlining potential actions and decisions in the event of differing outcomes will make for good decision-making.
Appoint a Brexit leader
Ensure one of your brightest talents is leading and coordinating your Brexit efforts. A concerted effort should be applied to managing risks and identifying opportunities as they emerge while simultaneously ensuring dialogue on this most critical of issues becomes part of the operating rhythm of the business. Delegating this responsibility frees the CEO from day-to-day focus on such an issue, while conveying complete confidence in the most talented person to see the company through – someone who is connected across all aspects of the business to coordinate and navigate these choppy waters effectively.
One of the more persuasive arguments for Brexit is that it will give Britain a unique opportunity to trial and introduce radical change. In preparing for this “brave new world,” seize the moment to do away with outmoded systems and processes impeding the ability to compete or scale. I have long argued that the top-down approach taken by so many UK businesses, of all sizes and across every conceivable sector, is no longer fit for purpose.
Create confidence within your team
Akin to the continual communication strategy outlined before, keeping people informed conveys confidence in your ability to navigate the situation. Allowing uncertainty to creep in risks provoking a talent drain. While the UK and its businesses are in this state of limbo with concerns about the future of supply chains, laws and regulations and other concerns, consistent communication to your key stakeholders and employees will go a long way towards preventing unwanted business disruption.
Focus on your people
Understand how Brexit will affect your talent and the changing capabilities. This starts with asking the right questions. For example, would you or your staff know how to register for settled status? Would remote working be feasible for your business? Focus on easy-to-miss details such as the post-Brexit relevancy of staff contracts and the protection of intellectual property. Your people will have questions which mirror these concerns, so engage them early in the process.
Flexible businesses will find themselves most resilient when faced with unpredictable current affairs. Preparation and agility in response to external factors is critical to the longevity and success of your business.
Leaders must lead. Brexit readiness does not necessarily mean doubling down on your existing strategy, and it certainly doesn’t mean the cessation of key decision making. The deft of touch will strike the appropriate balance between protective measures and fresh opportunities – both of which are critical for Brexit survival and business longevity
The greatest risk for businesses over the months ahead is not Brexit itself, but leaving yourself at the mercy of its events. Instead, lead from the front: placing the appropriate resources, design, technology and mindset at the forefront of your decision-making processes during times of transformation and uncertainty will stand our great companies in far better stead.
Rita Trehan is a bestselling author and critically acclaimed business expert who advises CEOs of Fortune 500 firms on the impact of Brexit. Follow her @Rita_Trehan
Dr Ben Laker is Professor of Leadership at Henley Business School and a Brexit commentator for Bloomberg and Sky News. Follow him @DrBenLaker