Well, it came as a shock… like Monty Python and the Spanish inquisition, no-one, (especially not David Cameron) expected it. Brexit, like the rise of Nigel Farage, Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump, seemed absurd and too far from the norms of reality to be taken seriously, yet here we are. We’re standing on the edge of seismic change and all we know is that “Brexit means Brexit” but not what Brexit is, bit the same as knowing that E=MC2 but for most of us, not having a clue what that means! At least with E=MC2 some clever scientific people do fully understand what it means and what you do with it and how you harness it. I’m not convinced that is true of the politicians and civil servants tasked with executing Brexit.
But what does that mean to commercial / sales leaders? How do we react?
What we know about humans and sudden or dramatic change is that we experience it at a visceral level as threat. Yes, in business we’ve all been socialised to give lip service to it, to say we embrace change and know it to be “A Good Thing” but deep down, the majority of people consciously or subconsciously experience it as threat. We also know that when faced with threat, all mammals do one of three things, fight the threat, freeze & hope it goes away or run away from it. So, as a commercial leader what are you going to do in the face of Brexit?
Are you going to freeze? Are you going to put all plans, investments and development activity on hold and wait and see what happens and how things look like they are going to pan out?
Are you going with flight? Are you going to run away, to move offices to Brussels, shift people and resources elsewhere?
Or are you going to fight it, oppose it, lobby against it and hope against hope that it turns out that Brexit in fact means Brexit-lite or Brexit-soft, which in fact in means status quo remains but perhaps slightly rebranded.
It’s true to say that in any challenging situation there is almost always opportunity as well as threat and the job of leadership is to rise above the instinctive reactions and look for the bigger picture, and figure out a proactive strategy to take their organisation forward.
A piece of research into leadership by the Oxford Said Business School talked about 'ripple intelligence.'
- Ripple intelligence is the ability to anticipate and judge how, when, and why contexts may interact to fundamentally disrupt the business.
- To discern and connect disparate events, discover patterns, and anticipate distant threats or opportunities, leaders need to rise above the clutter.
- Evaluate emerging trends—are they game-changing, transient, significant (but not for you), or slow-burn?
- New decisions create new ripples. Think about how they will interact with the existing ones to create more opportunities or threats.
So, what will change for sales / commercial leaders and what do you need to consider to build a robust plan for your organisations post Brexit world?
For example, what needs to be done, for example in order to:
- Protect business with European customers?
- To balance out any losses of business from European issues?
- To ensure European employees are retained and protected?
- To deal with the falling value of the pound?
Securing business with European partners and customers
If your business is predominantly European and many of your customers, channel partners and consumers are European then you’re going to have to work harder than before to ensure that those relationships are going to be kept strong enough to weather the storm. How do you do that? You make sure that you are adding value to your customers/ partners/ consumers, and that you are adding value over and above being merely, “a product/ services vendor.” You make sure that you are genuinely contributing to their business in a way that sets you apart from your competition.
This might require you to do things differently, become a lot more customer centric and flexible to enable you to adapt your offering to add better and more unique value. That might be challenging BUT it can be done and now is the time to be thinking about how.
The Miller Heiman Group 2016 sales best practice research shows that 91% of world class commercial operations have a robust and consistent process for managing their global accounts, whereas only 32% of those who are not world class say that. A good process that is truly customer centric, cross functional, supported by senior management and the wider organisation provides the way to answer the how do we become more valuable to our European customers and hence more secure.
If travel, Visa and work permits are to become harder with European employees, then ask yourself, what do I need to do to manage that? Do I need to think more about my remote working capability? Invest more in life size video conferencing? Or perhaps more local people in market?
Building business beyond Europe
If you have some business beyond Europe (or even if you don’t) then now might be the time to start looking at how you build your international business. How do I use the fact that the pound is at a low point to export more? How do I identify more international opportunities? What new partners might I need to work with? How can I do more with the international partners I currently have? How do I build a robust international pipeline of opportunity and bring those to revenue generating fruition?
It might take a rethink of your pre-Brexit growth strategy, it might require changes in infrastructure, investment and approach and it might feel counter intuitive to be contemplating ambitious international growth when conventional wisdom would be telling you to retrench and retract but therein lies the competitive opportunity. Just like a contrarian investment strategy, i.e. the advantage in going against the crowd, if you’re staying confident and looking for the opportunity within the threat when others are pulling up the drawbridge and 'watching and waiting' then it will be you that creates new opportunity and you that is the 'first mover' that benefits from it.
Miller Heiman Group research shows that 94% of world class sales operations are highly effective in allocating the right resources to pursue opportunities, but only 40% of the rest are. If it’s now important to your business to seize international opportunities beyond Europe, you might also need to look at how your organisation is set up to allocate resources.
Necessity is indeed the mother of invention; history is littered with examples of progress and innovation being borne out of challenging times.
It’s a time of uncertainty and doubt - so harness that!
Of course, commercial leaders are going to have their doubts about this. Wouldn’t it just be safer to watch and wait and see what happens? Doubt is natural. In Said Business School’s recent CEO Leadership report, 71% of those questioned said they doubted themselves. However, it went on to reveal key insights from the research:-
- “Doubt is part of the “humanisation” of leadership, a positive, generative state that should be embraced and utilised, not feared.
- Doubt is an issue of both knowing and feeling. Ignoring the emotional dimension artificially limits the range of solutions available.
- Transforming doubt into a decision tool helps leaders find comfort in the discomfort of making decisions when the outcome is uncertain.”
So, are you going to sit back, watch and wait? Or are you going to be proactive? You could start by reviewing and benchmarking your current commercial operations and identifying strengths and weaknesses using something like the Miller Heiman Group’s sales best practice research. Then you can build out a strategy from that, that enables your organisation to survive and thrive in the Post Brexit world.
By Patricia Seabright, Director of UK-based Archimedes Consulting Ltd, which helps businesses analyse and optimise their commercial processes and skills. She is also an independent consultant for the Miller Heiman Group.