With our virtual ASUG Best Practices: SAP for EAM conference right around the corner, we had a chance to sit down with one of our keynote speakers, William Taylor, best-selling author and the founding editor of Fast Company.

During our conversation, we discussed how COVID-19 has altered the working world, the shifting priorities for leaders, and how organizations can prepare for future disruptions. Take a look at our full conversation.

ASUG: The last two years have held an incredible amount of change in the business world. What do you consider to be the most pronounced and long-lasting change to come out of the COVID-19? Why?

Bill: For all of its human trauma and economic costs, the COVID-19 pandemic gave organizations, leaders, and rank-and-file colleagues the freedom to ask big questions that had not been asked for a long time: What kind of place do we want to be? What kind of work do we want to do? What kind of life do I want to lead?

When all your assumptions about where and how work can be done get shattered, and the things your customers need from you change dramatically, then you have the chance to rethink and reimagine what’s possible in your field. So to me, the longest-lasting change to come out of these last two years is the urgency of a renewed sense of purpose. As I think about the most impressive organizations and leaders I’ve studied over the past two years, the ones that performed brilliantly in difficult times, I’m struck by the fierce sense of purpose and confidence—optimism—that pervades them. Not wide-eyed optimism, blind faith in the inevitability of success, but what John Gardner calls “tough-minded optimism”—a blend of original ideas, deep convictions, and resilience in the face of setbacks and disappointments.

ASUG: How would you say the role of a leader has changed in the last few years?

Bill: In the last two years, leaders have faced two relentless sources of pressure. The first is the intense demand to perform—to deliver excellent short-term results despite radical shifts in what customers need and want, where and how people choose to work, and whether supply chains work at all. The second is the urgent need to transform—to reimagine the future of your marketplace and workplace, given all these radical shifts, and to reinvent your company’s strategy and culture to win that future. Dealing with either source of pressure is tough, which is why so many leaders feel so anxious and stressed. But meeting both of them, at the same time, can feel truly daunting. The challenge of performing while transforming has become the leadership test of our time. That’s the role leaders have to play—meeting that challenge.

ASUG: What does a post-COVID-19 business world look like from your perspective? Do you think we’ll ever “return to normal”? Is that even possible at this point?

Bill: The first thing I’d say is that the pre-Covid “normal” wasn’t all that great. The leaders and rank-and-file contributors I met in my research and speaking before March 2020 often felt overworked, stressed out, unappreciated. John Venhuizen, the CEO of Ace Hardware, is one of my favorite business leaders, someone whose organization responded amazingly to Covid, but was doing great work before that as well. Here’s how John described the business world before the pandemic: “The vast majority of the people who do the heavy lifting in business are aimless, purposeless, bored, and disengaged. They hate their job, they hate their boss, they hate their pay. It breaks your heart, but that’s where leaders have to begin their quest” for change. So I hope we don’t go back to normal. I hope we build something much better.

ASUG: What do you think has been a positive effect from all the change over the last two years? In what ways has the business world changed for the better?

Bill: The past two years have certainly brought out the worst in some organizations, but that’s more the exception than the rule. Time and again, organizations have shown that the worst situations tend to bring out the best in their people. So this crisis has been more than just a business test, it’s been a character test—an opportunity for organizations to demonstrate who they are and what really matters to them. In other words, just as bad behavior tends to spread, so too does good behavior. I have studied the work of Stanford neuroscientist Jamil Zaki, who documents what he calls “positive conformity.” In his research, “participants who believed others were more generous became more generous themselves.” This suggests that “kindness is contagious, and that it can cascade across people, taking on new forms along the way.” One change for the better is that we’ve seen a kindness contagion in many businesses

ASUG: At this specific point, what do you think is the biggest hurdle business leaders are facing? What steps can they take to overcome that hurdle?

Bill: This may sound strange, but I think the biggest hurdle business leaders face has to do with what makes people tick. Experts on human psychology don’t agree on much, but nearly all agree that people respond more viscerally to bad news than good. Hard times may bring out the best in organizations, but when it comes to the individual heart and mind, “Bad Is Stronger than Good.” That’s the title of a really important paper by a social psychologist named Roy F. Baumeister and three colleagues twenty years ago. This built-in “negativity bias” has huge implications for leaders and change agents—not just because it exists, but because it can be overcome. Baumeister talks about the Rule of Four: “It takes four good things to overcome one bad thing.” Bad news, of which there has been plenty in the past two years, doesn’t have to drag down your company or team. But it does require all of us to infuse even the best-designed strategies with a healthy dose of psychology.

ASUG: What can business leaders do to prepare for future challenges and disruptions?

Bill: One of the big challenges in times of disruption and uncertainty is for people and organizations to keep learning as fast as the world is changing—to analyze problems they haven’t encountered before, to make sense of opportunities they haven’t thought about before, to process emotions they haven’t experienced before. That’s why leaders should encourage their colleagues to learn from experts in fields they haven’t worked in before. Practices that are routine in one industry can be revolutionary when they migrate to another industry, especially when they challenge conventional wisdom in that industry. What better way to fuel your company’s imagination than to look for inspiration outside your field? If you want to learn fast, learn from strangers. So the best thing leaders can do is to make sure that what they know—all their expertise and experience— doesn’t limit what they can imagine going forward, that they keep learning as fast as the world is changing.

ASUG: What are some steps business leaders can take to deal with the current business disruptions we are currently dealing with?

Bill: My answer to this question relates to my answer to the previous question. When leaders face disruptions of the scale we’ve faced over the past two years, they simply have to step away from old habits, processes, and routines. Look for inspiration in new places. Talk to people with different interests, backgrounds, and experiences. Run lots of small experiments about new ways to connect with customers, organize people, develop products and services. There’s an old saying in Texas, “If all you ever do is all you’ve ever done, then all you’ll ever get is all you ever got.” Leaders need to do new things so they can get new kinds of results.

ASUG: What do you think successful leadership looks like in times of uncertainty? How should business leaders respond to a crisis like COVID-19 and lead their employees?

Bill: In times of uncertainty, the best leaders are the most humble leaders. This may sound strange: Don’t people want confidence, strength, decisiveness? Sure, but the problems companies face are too big, and the world is too complex, for leaders to believe that they can possibly have all the ideas and solutions their organizations need. The way I like to put it is that we are now in a world where nobody alone can be as smart as everybody together. The best leaders know how to ask for help, how to create an “architecture of participation” that invites lots of people to think alongside them. Humility and impact are not at odds with each other. In fact, humility in the service of impact is the most effective and sustainable mindset for leaders who aspire to do big things in a world defined by turmoil and uncertainty.

ASUG: It appears that COVID-19 has accelerated the implementation of certain technologies. What are your recommendations to business leaders as they go about supporting technology implementation projects?

Bill: My first recommendation is to start small, even if you are thinking big. The best way for leaders to implement big technology solutions, and change programs in general, is to embrace a gradual, improvisational, quietly persistent approach to change that organizational theorist Karl E Weick called “small wins.” Weick defines a small win as “a concrete, complete, implemented outcome of moderate importance.” On its own, one win “may seem unimportant.” But “a series of wins” begins to reveal “a pattern that may attract allies, deter opponents, and lower resistance to subsequent proposals.” Small wins create the confidence and momentum to support big change in the long term.

ASUG: What excites you the most about the next 3-5 years? What should we all be looking forward to?

Bill: I am most excited about the possibility of creating a more creative, productive, and human world of business out of the trauma and wreckage of the old. I’d emphasize that last word—human. All too often, leaders who champion big strategic and technological bets overlook the emotional connections that keep their colleagues confident and connected, and their customers loyal and engaged. In a world being reshaped by technology, people are hungry for a deeper and more authentic sense of humanity. I am looking forwards to more companies and leaders expressing their humanity.

Interested in hearing William’s keynote? Be sure to register for ASUG Best Practices: SAP for EAM. The virtual conference will be held on March 29-31. You can register here.

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