Facing 2018 with confidence

Stefan Stern looks ahead to 2018 and suggests ways that managers can make the best of an uncertain business environment.

Go to the profile of Stefan Stern
Dec 15, 2017
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As 2018 approaches, the observant executive will be struck by a stark paradox. On the one hand, economic indicators suggest good business prospects for much of the world. Growth is established, inflation is subdued, markets are lively and interest rates, though inching up, remain low.

And yet in geopolitical terms things are unsettling. North Korea continues to pursue its nuclear dream. The Middle East is on edge. Europe is distracted by Brexit. Cyber attacks are launched hourly from Russia, China and elsewhere. And Donald Trump’s Twitter account is still active.

Everything is great and everything is awful. Two decades ago, the late Prof Benjamin Barber from Rutgers University argued in ‘Jihad vs McWorld’ that globalisation could make things better in commercial terms while local, ‘tribal’ tensions were rising. This, he said, could have damaging consequences for democracy, a view that recent election results would appear to have borne out.

‘Executives too face their own personal paradoxes. It is a good time to be in business, but little is certain about the months ahead, let alone one’s career.’

Executives too face their own, personal, paradoxes. It is a good time to be in business. But technological change, emerging competition and unstable politics, means that little is certain about the months ahead, let alone one’s career. So how can they look to 2018 with anything like confidence?

Five survival tips for 2018

  • Focus, filter, forget. Good filtering skills are needed more than ever to spot the information and data that you do need while blocking out the noise that you do not. McKinsey consultants once talked about the need to ‘focus, filter and forget.’ Judgment will be impaired by information overload. You have to be able to get out from under it.
  • Develop expertise. Try to ensure that your expertise and practical skills remain sharp and relevant. No, the robots are not coming to take all the jobs. There are still plenty of decisions which one would rather a human takes. But nobody should be complacent; there might one day – quite soon – be an automated alternative to whatever you do. Prof Steve Fuller, a philosopher-sociologist at the University of Warwick asks: ‘What is the added value in being human?’ This is the market test for any manager’s skills and capabilities.
  • Be flexible. While the word ‘agile’ is used more and more—and often means different things to different people—flexibility is a more useful quality to aspire to. When markets are changing, greater flexibility is clearly needed. Old, limited marketing techniques, for example, will not help sell masses of product to a customer base that is fragmented and looking to buy through a wide range of channels. Managers need to keep an open mind as to what type of team structures would allow people to do their best work.
  • Collaborate. No-one knows everything. Skill sets that can be deployed in teams and allow cross-fertilisation will be more useful than those trapped in silos. Don’t be one of those ‘leaders’ whose thirst for learning has dried up and who doesn’t want to try anything new.
  • Stay healthy. Finally, none of the above will be possible if you are too tired or stressed. It’s crucial to manage and maintain energy levels. Senior managers have to digest a huge amount of complicated and, at times, unsettling data. The quality of your decision making under pressure will be determined in part by how fresh your mind is. So manage yourself well, and view your health as a key performance indicator.

It seems unlikely that calm will return to the business world in 2018. We live in ‘interesting times.’ The managers whose skills remain sharp and relevant while they stay fresh for the challenges to come, will navigate the year ahead successfully.

Go to the profile of Stefan Stern

Stefan Stern

Visiting Professor, Cass Business School

Stefan Stern is visiting professor of management practice at Cass Business School, a business journalist and former FT management columnist. He is co-author of Myths of Management.