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When was the last time things felt ‘normal’? Most of us would probably agree that conditions have felt anything but ordinary ever since the Brexit referendum of 2016. Since then, it’s been a whirlwind of political change, the Covid-19 pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, spiralling energy prices and inflation, supply chain disruptions, and now Middle East conflict that could even develop into a regional war.

It’s quite a roll call of extreme events and we are asking even more of ourselves to navigate all of this. So it’s no wonder that businesses – and their customers – have often felt beset by uncertainty and contradictory indicators, with the future hard to predict.

Continued uncertainty and challenge

Right now, we’re still in the thick of it. Inflation has been falling and the FTSE is in good health. But at the same time, interest rates have yet to fall, costs remain high, and it’s only a handful of stocks and sectors that are riding high: for many businesses, conditions remain extremely challenging.

What’s more, the much-hoped for drop in interest rates and input costs as inflation comes under control is very much at the mercy of geopolitical events. If the Middle East conflict escalates, we could see oil prices and inflation marching back up again, with increased cost pressures and supply chain disruptions coming right to the fore.

The reality is that the challenges we’re facing aren’t going away. Predictions for global economic growth this year remain gloomy. The IMF, for example, is predicting growth of just 3.1% – the same muted level as in 2023. The trajectory for inflation, interest rates and costs remains very uncertain. Politically, putting the Middle East to one side, there are a series of major elections coming up this year – starting with India now, followed at some point by our own UK election, and of course the US in November. The outcome of the US vote will obviously have wide-reaching ramifications. The rest of 2024 – and quite probably on into 2025 – looks like being a continuation of the uncertain conditions we’ve been living with for so long.

To some extent, this shouldn’t be a cause for alarm as it’s what we’ve all become used to – resilience has become an ingrained attribute that we’ve all had to learn. In that sense, it’s ‘business as usual’ and I am sure that organisations will continue to find a way through.

But on the other hand, human capacity for dealing with uncertainty is not limitless. People get tired. Customers need reassurance. Staff feel the toll of high workloads and the fast pace of change.

Stepping up as a leadership team

Given all of these factors, strong and purpose-led leadership is more important than perhaps ever before. Quite simply, we cannot afford to flag. There are no breathers in business. Customers will rightly continue to expect excellent service, value and choice. If they don’t receive it, they will go elsewhere. Markets and investors will expect to see strong financial performance, a growth plan for the future, and clear strategic direction. Staff need to see a company vision they believe in together with development opportunities, training and support.

That’s why the time is right for leaders to take stock and make sure that enough time, energy and resource is being devoted to supporting people at all levels of the organisation.

As a leadership team, are you stepping up to the challenge? Are you making the time to connect as a group and take that wider view on how the business is faring? Is everyone really clear about the organisation’s core purpose and how this will be delivered, including tracking progress against key targets?

Then there is the wider workforce on whom all leadership teams depend. Are key values, targets and priorities being communicated clearly and effectively at all levels of the organisation? Is there sufficient training and support in place for staff, including in areas like mental health and wellbeing?

In customer-facing teams, is there a focus on ensuring that staff are equipped to really understand and help customers, moving beyond ‘process’ to respond to individual issues and needs? Service needs to be enshrined as a core business value – so is this being lived out in practice, each and every day?

Navigating through uncertainty

We should be under no illusion that the business environment is set to remain tough. But there is a way to manage through this and succeed. Leaders and managers need to remain committed to their agreed strategic goals, continually assess the needs of customers and team members, and take calm decisions that keep the organisation on track. By looking at how all of the factors that drive employees, stakeholders, customers and investors interlink we can have a consistent set of goals and targets that are outcome-based. Thinking horizontally and not just vertically will really assist to unite behind a common set of objectives and helps drive greater understanding and consistency.

Finally, staying true to your core values and business purpose is key. It is by remaining true to what businesses know to be right and fair that they can keep up the resilience needed to navigate uncertainty and achieve excellent performance whatever the external conditions.

Jo joined The Institute as its CEO in 2009. She has driven membership growth by 150 percent and established the UK Customer Satisfaction Index as the country’s premier indicator of consumer satisfaction, providing organisations with an indicator of the return on their service strategy investment.

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