Leadership in a post-pandemic world


Some had predicted a global pandemic, but no one had prepared for it. There was no handbook for navigating such an historic event, and there still isn’t. No words can describe or do justice to how it’s impacted every one of us, old and young, rich and poor, all around the globe.

Responding to unfamiliar and uncertain situations put tremendous pressure on leaders to react, adapt and reorganize with empathy for the new normal. A year into this altered way of life, the world is still coming to terms with the effects of the pandemic. Now, there is a window of opportunity for us all to reflect. Are we ready for the next chapter?

Reactionary leadership will define your journey to recovery 

When a crisis hits, recognizing it and adapting existing plans to meet the current needs are key steps that can help leaders not only survive but thrive. 2020 was a tremendous test for leaders and their agility became more important and meaningful than ever. At White Oak, we first made sure that our employees and partners were safe and fully equipped for remote work.

Open communication within the organization was incredibly important to facilitate this. Communications went from a mode of functionality to camaraderie, where we used our channels to plan virtual events and bring our employees together. On the business side, we immediately sprang into action to ensure our portfolio companies and investors had access to the right information at the right time. From extensive research to regular updates, our team of underwriters, originators and managers offered the support and expertise for our clients to understand their cash flow needs. Open communication and authentic interactions became essential tools to keep companies functional.

The real hard work begins now. While we created growth and deployed over $2.7 billion of capital in 2020, it was not an easy journey. In the background, we took care of our employees, clients and partners. There were certainly learning moments along the way and we are emerging with some cuts and bruises. There could be more disruptions in the near future that we still cannot predict. Not all companies will come back to work at the same time and some companies look very different from the beginning of 2020 to now. As executives learn to adapt, leading with agility, empathy, clarity and strategy will be the most rewarding path.

Give your company and employees the ongoing tools to succeed 

As the pandemic changed the workplace forever and a majority of employees went remote, ‘business as usual’ was no longer possible. Providing employees the flexibility to work remotely challenged leaders to ensure seamless connection, effective and consistent communication within their teams. There have been benefits such as increased productivity, but drawbacks as well.

As lockdowns ensued, we worked closely with our human resources department and our operating committee to ensure our employees were well equipped. As we approached the second half of the year, the reality set in that this was our new normal for the foreseeable future. Our approach went from reactionary to proactive. It was extremely important to us that we not lose the human element of our environment and held tight to our core values. We worked to provide liquidity to businesses to see them through the individual hurdles they faced within their respective sectors. The world will be different in the next six months and some countries will experience a greater sense of recoveries than others.

Recoveries will vary across sectors, and some companies will need more liquidity going into the future given those cycles. It is incredibly important to keep in mind that everyone’s experience in the pandemic has and will continue to differ based on a variety of factors. We do not know what the post-pandemic world will be, but looking at the past year, patience and communication will play pivotal roles in improving function and productivity.

Embrace change as an agent of innovation

Adjusting to the new normal is not an easy task for anyone, and leaders should confront what change will work best for their business models and strategies. It is crucial to self-assess the last fourteen months in order to overcome challenges, improve and prepare for recovery.

From a leadership standpoint, there was not one right way to handle this situation. Those that did not embrace change as an agent of innovation lost out on a great deal of opportunity. For example, I have always been a proponent of in person meetings and the utility of the office as opposed to remote work. While the change to remote was forced, I learned from my own experience, and our employees, in how our team could successfully function in that realm.

For the long-term, it will be equally important to understand how our employees function best and in which cultures they thrive. This is a testing period for all, and as we explore the flexibility of the last year, combined with hybrid work environments, there will be implications on talent retention and attraction. As a company, we are exploring how we can better invest in our people and stakeholders during this time of change and where the opportunities are for improvement.

Be open to new opportunities to emerge with resiliency

The pandemic exposed many vulnerabilities. As we emerge and look towards recovery, businesses need to be open-minded to create resiliency. There are many opportunities to fuel retention and growth. It is important to use the insights learned from the time taken to self-assess, invest in innovation and to future-proof against unforeseen disruptions moving forward.

From an operating standpoint, you can have all the plans you want on paper, and recommendations from consultants who come in and give you ideas for redundancies, but there is no substitute for real life action. Within White Oak, we had our protocols and remote workplace manuals already in place, but we could not plan for everything this situation would deliver. We realized that there was a lot of utility and applications in what was already under our contingency plans that were beneficial. We were pleased to have at least thought through some of those plans, which gave us a head start.

As we emerge and prepare for the next chapter, new opportunities will arise. The executives that will succeed are those that have recognized their unique business changes and atypical, or unexpected, instances for stability and growth. Certain industries will be affected by some new policy opportunities and we can anticipate investments there. Whether those are environmental or infrastructure, there will be growth opportunities for the companies that have expertise in those areas.

Leadership in the post-pandemic world means altering not only your workplace environment, but also your management techniques and mindset. More importantly, leading effectively in these uncertain times and continued virtual work environment require strong leadership skills. And those who have these qualities will emerge their businesses from the crisis stronger and more resilient.

Commentary by Andre A. Hakkak, Co-Founder & Chief Executive Officer of White Oak Global Advisors LLC.

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