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How should leadership be responding to Brexit?

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Brexit can be considered typical of many a major change event. When it comes to change, leaders need to bear in mind that people are a self-interested breed.

What does the future hold?

All leaders, whether dealing with any clients, employees or suppliers, need to remember that a stakeholder’s main interest will lie in what it means for them. In this globally significant situation, leaders need to be anticipating a spectrum of emotions and feelings following the results on Friday: fear and panic at one end of the scale, elation and excitement at the other. It will be important for leaders to plan how they will address the concerns of all stakeholders. 

In change scenarios, an issue faced by leadership is immediacy – employees will want to know exactly what any change will mean for them. Suppliers want to know the effect on their relationships, clients want to know their level of services will not be affected. Often, there will be a grace period where ‘reasonable’ people will accept there is no definitive answer. This is only true in the short term – impatience will then creep in. Very quickly, there will be a demand for clarity and certainty.

As a leader, be ready for change

What leaders will need to have are some answers that will satisfy people off the bat. In many change scenarios a leader will be in control and they can draw down on their past experiences to anticipate the next steps and any market repercussions. The challenge here is Brexit is unprecedented. The more progressive leaders will have worked with experts and analysts to anticipate the ramifications of a leave majority, and therefore what to say to stakeholders in a range of different scenarios. By going one step further and letting all parties know that planning has already started, this will provide some reassurance that might minimise disruption to the operation of the organisation. 

Considering the ripple effect Brexit could have worldwide, any leader would be foolish to give cast-iron guarantees about the consequences on their organisation. The best thing is to be visible, accessible and responsive. Clear your diary and focus on creating dialogue. Openness and honesty from the outset are critical. A great leader will take time to confirm if things are facts or assumptions, pledge to share what they know and be available for questions. These small steps will build long-term trust and will make a big difference with stakeholders during this period of uncertainty.

The biggest challenge for leaders will be getting confidence and support for the process they will be go through to overcome challenges. The most enlightened businesses will make their people and other stakeholders part of the solution and involve them in working through how the business needs to change. If there are problems, leaders should be inclusive and consult people at all levels of the organisation. Do not just allow management consultants to weigh in. 

What are the obstacles you face?

Another dimension to the challenge leaders will face is the force of public opinion and the strong views of the media – particularly for certain sectors and institutions, such as the NHS. Heated public debates could undermine leadership messages. Where there is such a keen external interest, leaders will need to be prepared to combat the repercussions of their messages being attacked and eroded on a daily basis. Leaders should pull the media close, and engage them in dialogue to manage their messages as well as possible.

The key point for leaders to keep at the forefront of their minds in the fallout from Friday’s Brexit result is: It’s all about openness, honesty and inclusivity.


Catherine  Fallon

By Catherine Fallon

Catherine is a senior engagement consultant at Instinctif Partners, she specialises in advising leaders of global organisations on how to engage employees and other stakeholders during periods of change or crisis.

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