Embrace Change, Prioritize People

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Wednesday, August 17, 2022
By Marie Taillard
Illustration by iStock/DrAfter123
These are two of the most valuable lessons to arise from the pandemic, and they’re the focus of executive education programs at ESCP Business School.
  • In today’s chaotic environment, businesses must be prepared to adapt quickly and executives must be willing to transform the workplace.
  • At ESCP, participants learn to plan transformation and to create action plans that outline the specific steps they will take to implement change.
  • Participants also learn that businesses are more likely to survive if they are centered on fulfilling the needs of people, including employees, customers, and partners.

COVID-19 has taught us many lessons, but I believe two will be the most enduring for managers: Businesses must be prepared to constantly adapt to changing circumstances. And businesses must put people first or they will not survive.

We keep both of these lessons in mind as we teach executive education programs at ESCP Business School, which has locations in Paris, Berlin, London, and Madrid, as well as Turin, Italy, and Warsaw, Poland.

Implementing Change

The pandemic’s first lesson is that businesses must be flexible and quick to adapt to global crises like COVID-19. This also means that individuals inside companies must be willing to change the way they work and interact with others around them.

At ESCP, our executive programs are designed to trigger this kind of change in our participants. One important way to ensure this happens is to have participants in our programs implement changes as they learn. One of the questions we like to challenge participants with is: What are you going to do about this on Monday morning when you return to your team?

However, it is important that these changes are put in place as part of a carefully structured plan. That’s why we ask students to put together a well-thought-out action plan that outlines what changes they want to make, in what order, and what steps are required to accustom others in the workplace to each new adjustment. We call these intended steps action points.

Action plans are frequently ambitious and long-term. In such plans, executives might state they want to reshape their leadership styles, draw up new directions for their corporate strategies, or reevaluate their approaches to key areas of management.

Action points, on the other hand, are generally more immediate and concrete. For instance, an executive who has finished one of our programs might have an action point that states, “I will convene my team on Monday morning to discuss the leadership program I have just attended. In this meeting, I will summarize what I learned and how I intend to use that new knowledge to enhance collaboration in the company.”

Action plans are frequently ambitious and long-term. Action points, on the other hand, are generally more immediate and concrete.

Other executives will have different action points. These might range from “Ask my head of HR to organize an away day so we can work on our team’s balanced scorecard and develop shared key performance indicators” to “Review our sustainability commitments to ensure that they are clearly communicated to internal and external stakeholders.”

Clear Benefits

Having an action plan set in ink, as it were, provides three key benefits:

It has a positive emotional effect on executives. They leave our program imbued with a sense of self-efficacy—the belief that they can achieve their targets and control their behaviors, motivations, and environments. This confidence is particularly beneficial for executives in senior leadership roles.

It allows executives to assess their progress. Participants can refer back to their action plans to determine how well they executed a given change and how closely their results matched their intentions. In this way, an action plan becomes a useful means of self-reflection and performance assessment.

It ensures that change happens. When participants can follow a clear step-by-step road map, they are more likely to take the necessary actions. As an additional benefit, their sponsors will see that the executives have clear paths to change and know how to travel them competently.

One technique that works particularly well is to have executive participants draw up their action plans individually and then present them to some of their peers in the same program. This allows them to get live feedback, challenges them to justify their priorities and choices, and gives them exposure to other people’s action plans. Often these peer-to-peer sessions are facilitated by our executive coaches, who help participants open up to others and provide honest feedback. This process also helps address one of the challenges that our executives often report—their sense of loneliness in the face of responsibility and uncertainty.

Putting People First

The second lesson of the pandemic is that businesses will only succeed in chaotic times by prioritizing the needs of people—including employees, customers, and partners across the value chain.

During the so-called “Great Resignation” triggered by COVID-19, it became very clear that businesses need to be employee-centric or employees won’t stay. In our executive courses at ESCP, we discuss the difficulties of keeping teams together and the importance of providing workers with a sense of purpose. We point out that, in the current business context, many people—especially younger employees—want to feel a greater sense of purpose that aligns their jobs with their values. For that reason, putting people first is absolutely key.

As a concept, making individuals a top priority is tied to the now-familiar notion of customer centricity. While marketers have advocated this concept for many years, it still remains elusive for many organizations. One reason is that customer centricity cannot be achieved in a vacuum. To achieve it, corporations also must maintain employee centricity and partner centricity. In effect, they must put people first in all interactions and bring the human dimension back into business.

Businesses will only succeed in chaotic times by prioritizing the needs of people—including employees, customers, and partners across the value chain.

The firms that did well during the COVID pandemic were the ones headed by people-first leaders who made decisions based on human-centric values. These leaders prioritized what was right for the people in their ecosystems: their customers, their workers, and the associates in their value chains. Like Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who describes his leadership style in Hit Refresh, they were and are driven by empathy.

A Real-World Example

I discuss this people-first attitude in Digital Makeover, a book I recently co-authored with Béatrice Collin, about the digital transformation of beauty company L’Oréal. In the book, we show how this approach was so critical to the company’s ability to deal effectively with the pandemic. L’Oréal’s human-centric values—as well as its adaptability and the time-tested experience of managers up and down the organization—allowed the company to accelerate its digital transformation during the crisis.

Because of their focus on people, company leaders found ways to keep their employees while also serving their customers. For instance, L’Oréal turned its face cream production facilities into hand sanitizer manufacturing lines for hospitals and nursing homes. A single manager was even able to completely transform the company’s supply chain overnight by using WhatsApp to get in touch with suppliers one by one.

Because L’Oréal saw people as individuals and acted with empathy, it was able to adapt and thrive. I believe other institutions, including business schools, can benefit by following its example.

Learning the Lessons

Like the students in our executive education programs, ESCP has had to learn the lessons of the pandemic. We had to adapt quickly when lockdowns and travel restrictions forced schools to pivot to web-based teaching. But then and now, we have never forgotten to put people first. That’s not only what we teach at ESCP, but also how we teach.

For that reason, we offer a blend of online and in-person programs, because we think this approach serves our students best. While the online components help make our programs more efficient, the in-person sessions provide room for social interactions where people can bond and share information. Post-COVID, individuals find it more inspiring than ever to spend time with each other. They are hungry for opportunities to learn from each other, to laugh together, and to share anecdotes. Our programs provide spaces for this spontaneous sharing to take place.

In our teaching, whether online or in person, we leave plenty of room for breakout sessions in which participants get a chance to solve assigned problems together. But these sessions also give them the opportunity to bounce ideas off each other, to share their work practices and practical tips with each other, and even to shoot the breeze more informally. These interludes make our teaching come to life and really give meaning to what we call collaborative learning.

We know there will be new crises in the months and years ahead, and they will bring their own learning opportunities. However, we will continue to teach our executive students to embrace change and prioritize people, because we believe these skills will arm them for many of the challenges they will face in years to come.

Marie Taillard
Associate Dean for Executive Education (UK), L’Oréal Professor of Creativity Marketing, ESCP Business School
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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