Speaking on the Leaders Council Podcast, Strategy Sprints founder and CEO Simon Severino [pictured] discusses how his business has adapted to meet the Covid-19 challenge and how business leaders can step back from the hectic day-to-day world of business by ‘moving from star to galaxy’ and observing the bigger picture.
Alongside running Strategy Sprints - a management consulting and coaching company that helps scale up businesses - Simon is well-versed in the realms of growth, strategy and innovation from teaching MBA courses at universities across Europe. Yet, despite his knowledge, the initial shock of the Covid-19 pandemic, as it did with so many other businesses and executives, even took him by surprise.
Recalling his emotions in the pandemic’s early days and the initial impact on his business with the Leaders Council’s Scott Challinor, Simon explained that the health crisis left a significant cash vacuum and an aura of shock that had to be overcome.
He said: “We had a huge cash crunch because our old business model was around running large transformative events with 30, 200 or even 6000 people. We would be in one room and break down problems into solutions and we would use the room, the atmosphere, the emotion, and the people within that room to solve specific issues. Then overnight, all events were cancelled, and we had a huge shortfall of around half a million pounds. Many booked events were gone and so that was impactful.”
Yet, despite this immediate severance of a key revenue stream, the adaptability of the Strategy Sprints business as a small enterprise meant that the company was able to pivot effectively.
Simon explained: “Luckily enough we were lean, and we were adaptable, so the small parts of our business could be recombined, and we could change our operations. Within a couple of months at Strategy Sprints we changed our offering to clients completely, shifting it around the needs of the real world that was in front of us, and this enabled us to continue.”
For the business to reach a stage of ‘optimised creativity’ where members of its inner team could naturally share and implement ideas to effectively adapt to the health crisis, Simon had to carefully manage people’s mental health and anxieties. When it came to devising a strategy to address this, Simon explained that within the business he took the decision to extend that strategy outward, and not solely within the confines of the business and its staff.
“We saw in the first weeks of the lockdown last March a real shock. We have seen shock within ourselves, in our team, and in our clients too. So, what we wanted to create immediately was a ‘container’ in which we could have frank conversations around our shock and our personal feelings and together we could then discuss tangible options for action. So, we created a weekly ‘mastermind’ session over videoconference where we addressed the issue of ‘managing the current situation’. We planned to run this for 21 days and it was held for one hour a day and, instead of keeping it exclusive to our business, we made it open to anyone around the world, so it was open to the public and we had people from Asia who were running airlines dialling in, then we had people in California, London and Zurich joining the session.
“All these businesses had something in common in that they had suffered from a cash crunch. They were having different discussions through our platform and exchanging knowledge and we had therefore made a space where business leaders could be with each other and discuss their anxieties and feelings. That was a moment of relief.”
This new discussion platform proved greatly beneficial since businesses began to become more vreative in discussions together and identify new revenue streams to pivot during the crisis.
Simon continued: “A couple of weeks after we had run our open session, the first ‘unfreezing’ moment came when an airline from Asia was doing better than ever with its cargo business and shared this news with us. Then people in London were telling us about a PE teacher who had made a huge success of themselves on YouTube. These moments of creativity really helped us, and we moved forward week by week supporting each other and then everybody naturally became more and more creative.”
In Simon’s view, despite the tragedy of human loss brought about by Covid, a year of social restrictions has brought an inadvertent benefit in giving business leaders time to reflect, driving innovation forward.
“I honestly think that without the pandemic forcing us to innovate there would not have been so much progress in making this highly creative space. It has been a blessing in disguise in providing us with time to reflect and think about how we do things.”
Reflecting on the last year of living with the coronavirus, Simon candidly revealed that having the time for self-reflection had enabled him to learn more about himself and to think more closely about how he operated his company.
“This pandemic period has been a source of growth for me personally and as a husband, friend, colleague and part of a team. It has also been a humbling experience and reminded me that we only serve one big idea, and because I am no longer flying around the world in a busy and frantic way attending meetings, I have more time to think and reflect.”
Indeed, so far removed is Simon’s working life now from the hectic corporate world that existed before Covid, that he no longer owns his own desk.
“I don't even have a desk anymore!” Simon admitted. “I sit down on a meditation mat every day when working because it grounds me, and I have time to think through things and ask simple things like ‘what are we doing and are we doing these things in the right way? What is my intention behind building a business with a global impact?’ That self-reflection is so important at times like this, and we are seeing so much change going forward as a result of that.”
Simon also imagines that what business leaders have learned from the pandemic will give rise to significant changes in the workplace of the future.
“The times of big corporations having one office with hundreds of people in it are gone and the world is waking up to the fact that these are simply a status symbol. Now, we are realising that working from home is effective. It has been a period of creative licence for business, and we are more willing to embrace flexible working models.”
Simon then moved on to address an issue of great personal importance, discussing how other business leaders are able to take a step back from the day-to-day running of a business in the same vein as himself, and begin to alleviate the pressure on their shoulders.
He explained: “One of the things we teach at Strategy Sprints at the start is that as CEO, you have to move from star to galaxy. You must let go of the narcissistic part of you which convinces you that your business is impactful because of you and your presence. It is not true. The purpose of your business is what is impactful and that is why people work with you. What makes the tangible impact is your tools, techniques, and services rather than yourself. Moving from star to galaxy is recognising that whatever the magic is in your business, you can teach it, share it, and grow it, and it is all about the idea and intervention. Build and enable others to make impactful interventions as well as yourself: that is your job, it is about instilling culture, a vision, it is hiring, and it is firing.
“So, by moving from star to galaxy and moving away from the hectic daily operation, there is a lot of pressure off your shoulders and that is a good treatment against burnout. For example, some of our clients work 17 hours a week and run operations in 114 countries and have precious time for their families. So, there is a way of having healthy organisations and it starts with us who run the companies showing as a role model that we can have a healthy life and a healthy approach to business. This then filters down through the company and encourages a better work-life balance.”
When asked about what has inspired him during recent times of hardship, Simon spoke about setting time aside for engaging in mastermind groups with other business leaders, explaining that sharing moments of vulnerability and ideas were vital for progress.
“We run mastermind groups of 50 people and I am a member of groups all over the world like this. I get inspiration from deep conversations with other CEOs and conversations where we are open and show our vulnerability. Going deep, sharing what is and is not working and getting ideas from others are one of the best things you can do as a business leader. In this sharing space I refresh and reset and get inspiration from others and give inspiration to others. We are all human and have our moments of anxiety and nothing is preventing us from talking about them. If we share these moments of difficulty as CEOs who can be lonely at the top, we soon realise there are many of us, it does not have to be so lonely, and we can discuss things together and triumph.”