04.09.2020 Lisa McAuley

Over the past four months COVID-19 has exacerbated existing trade and geopolitical tensions, fuelled scepticism about the benefits of globalisation and seen already high-levels of economic uncertainty rise.

As governments across the globe respond to protect their citizens lives and livelihoods, the resulting restrictions on the movement of people, capital, goods and services across borders has proven catastrophic for many businesses working in Global Value Chains (GVCs).

For many, the challenge of navigating an increasingly complex host of political, economic, regulatory and institutional barriers has simply proven too great. Since February 2020, thousands of businesses working in GVCs have closed their doors for good, while countless others continue to struggle to survive the global pandemic.

This has focussed significant attention on the potential shortcomings of past business models, the configuration of GVCs, and raised questions about how businesses can build the resilience needed to withstand the challenges of the future.

What makes for resilient workers and management teams, when threats and disruptions are varied and unknown?

The term ‘resilience’refers to an organisation’s ability to bounce back after disruptions, and to use the learning acquired through navigating those disruptions to increase its capacity to handle future adversity.

Confidence, purpose, psychological safety, and adaptive capacity are the cornerstones of resilient teams. We understand these qualities as follows:

  • Confidence in the capability of the individual and the collective to effectively complete tasks.
  • A shared understanding of collective purpose, as well as clarity concerning the individual roles, responsibilities and capabilities of all team members, and how they will work together to achieve shared goals.
  • Edmonson defines psychological safety as an organisational climate in which “people are comfortable expressing and being themselves”*. When teams feel psychologically safe, they are able to share concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution, fostering an environment conducive to growth.

Finally, the adaptive capacity of individuals and teams refers to their ability to cope with uncertainty and unpredictability. Director and co-founder of the Uncharted Leadership Institute, Andrew Stevens, explains that “in complex environments, success is increasingly driven by individual and organisational adaptive capacity. This is the capability to continually adapt, reshape and lead organisational functions while balancing short-term and long-term objectives.” Teams that continuously acquire and apply new knowledge and skills, in ways that are both sustainable and difficult for competitors to replicate, are well-placed to succeed in today’s increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) global business environment.

What are the hard and soft skills that leaders need in the response to COVID-19 supply chain disruptions? What about in the future?

In an age of tightly interconnected global supply chains and unprecedented technological and trade disruption, it is more important than ever that leading teams engaged in cross-border trade have access to the technical trade knowledge and adaptive capacities required to effectively intuit and prepare strategically for a range of future scenarios.

Today’s business leaders must acquire the technical trade knowledge required to effectively monitor and evaluate the potential organisational impact of geopolitical and trade policy tensions, as well as emerging technological and social disruptors.

They must be sufficiently future-focussed and strategic to anticipate and adapt to the shocks to supply and demand, disruption to trade and investment flows, and fragmentation of GVC’s, which have led to the cessation of so many businesses since the outbreak of the global pandemic.

Finally, today’s leaders must support their teams’ capacity to learn, progress and adapt in rapidly evolving environments with high levels of uncertainty. They require the advanced complex and adaptive thinking capabilities to bring together diverse groups of people and collectively chart a path forward in these uncertain times. They must also be able to build organisational ecosystems (or cultures) that grow, support and reward innovation, learning and adaption. Organisational cultures that provide teams with a clear sense of purpose, value diversity in skills and thinking, support creativity and experimentation, distribute power and responsibility for greatest impact, and provide the continuous development necessary to equip their people with the knowledge and skills needed to make better decisions in complex operating environments.

The global pandemic has brought about unprecedented economic disruption, new challenges to the movement of goods and services, and an urgent need for business transformation.

The global pandemic has brought about unprecedented economic disruption, new challenges to the movement of goods and services, and an urgent need for business transformation.

Speaking on the impact of COVID-19 and how we can build more resilient teams for trade in the future, Professor Peter Draper, Executive Director of The University of Adelaide’s Institute for International Trade (IIT) called on educators to “rethink training solutions to better equip businesses working in GVCs to identify new working solutions with the potential to strengthen trade, create more resilient businesses, and support the long-term sustainability of GVCs”.

For this reason, the Global Trade Professionals Alliance (GTPA) and IIT are partnering with leading international trade education providers Sussex University and Georgetown University to deliver a ground-breaking development program for trade professionals. Adaptive Trade Leadership in a Globalised World is an international collaboration between leading trade educators and professionals to develop strategic trade expertise and adaptive leadership capacities in today’s business leaders.

To learn more about this exciting new development program, and how you can help build the resilience of your business visit us at Adaptive Leadership Program.

by Lisa Hunt, Business Manager, Institute for International Trade, The University of Adelaide and Professor Peter Draper, Executive Director, Institute for International Trade, The University of Adelaide.