When the EU referendum was first mentioned, I have to confess that I saw it as something positive. After a very long decade of virtually no growth and much evidence of a widespread, torpid ‘business as usual’ business culture, I could see that it was potentially a game-changing burning platform that, with the right leadership, could become a source of empowerment-driven innovation and energising change. This conviction grew as all medium-to-long-term economic indicators suggested that growth in the west, at least, would remain very sluggish at best.
However, as the campaigning started and we began to hear the voices, not only of the establishment, but of the too-large swathes of the disaffected, disenchanted and largely disenfranchised, I changed my mind.
It soon became apparent that every critic and commentator I respected was voting to remain. By delving into the facts and figures it became clear that we needed the stability offered by being part of a major global entity more than we needed independence; that we didn't have the political leaders to do justice to a revolution; and, to be blunt, too many people were struggling to come to terms with the macro-economic implications of Brexit. They were turning the referendum into a protest vote against perceived immigration, a Conservative government they didn't want, and a rebel yell against all forms of establishment that they felt had let them down – especially in the previously industrialised regions. I have a great deal of sympathy for their sentiments. But voting against something isn't the same as voting for an alternative – especially when there is no strategy for how to deal with the implications should the wishes come true.
Well, contrary to received wisdom, the time for damaging debate is over. We will leave the EU, ignoring the overwhelming wishes of younger people who will have to live through the implications, and business leaders desperate to keep business as usual. My personal journey has come full circle and I'm back to where I started – at the burning platform for change that we have all, like it or not, been handed.
Taking all of this in, my call to arms for HR directors and their CEOs is this: I know you probably didn't want this, you probably don't agree with it, and you're probably pretty nervous about it, but in the chaos and uncertainty that has ensued it's time to show some real leadership. It’s time to find the positives and take advantage of the opportunities that you will be presented with.
There’s little that individual boards of directors can do about the Brexit negotiations. But they can control their own controllables. And in the face of potentially disempowering uncertainty, one of those controllables is actually the behaviour change required within their organisations, leading to the culture shift needed to cope.
Board directors need to ask themselves, after years of forcing a steady state, do they actually still have the wise leaders, the mavericks, the blue-sky thinkers, the innovators, the shapers and the creative heavy hitters who can and take advantage of uncertainty, new markets and fresh challenges, and keep their heads when all about them are losing theirs? Without them, they may be simply moving too slowly down tired roads to nowhere.
Better still, how can they inspire these qualities in their people – and fast? Just as importantly, do they have the leaders who can credibly ‘saddle up’ and co-create the empowered, refreshed and confident workforce the electorate has voted for?
Organisational cultures can and do change if their senior leaders have the vision, inspiration and will to invest in systemic transformation, as well as a suitably energising business case for change to entice the best out of their people. Brexit has created one such business case for the UK. But it remains to be seen which CEOs, with close HR director support, will have the courage, conviction and confidence to take the lead within their organisations and to not only do things better (because that just won't be enough) but to do very different things in a ‘brave’ new world? I’m certainly starting to see a shift in mindset in the organisations I’m supporting. Are you?
Ian P Buckingham is a business transformation executive and coach, and is the author of Brand Engagement and Brand Champions