Three learnings for leaders in a VUCA environment

Posted on Thursday, December 1, 2022 by Alison Humphreys - Award winning NED and strategic advisor

VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

It describes the environment of constant, unpredictable change that is now the norm in certain industries and areas of the business world.

Once you recognise that you are in a VUCA environment, the only logical approach for leaders is to be highly adaptive and responsive- in other words, agile. Agile leaders are constantly taking soundings and constantly learning and adapting. They manage in real-time, rather than applying rules from a different age.

For years, I deliberately chose to ask staff – even those who had had a seriously bad month – “What have you learned from your experiences in the last month? How can we all use this learning?”

This time, I’d like to highlight some really excellent learning that some of my clients have really capitalised on in the last few months of being in a VUCA environment.

1. Be honest with people.

At the start of the crisis, one or two business owners I know were really reluctant to share with their teams the reality of the financial position of the business.

They were concerned that staff would find it demotivating or start looking for other work.

I urged my clients to come clean. Sure, craft the message carefully, but staff step up when they fully realise that you run a business, and businesses have costs.

That there are some things you don’t know (like when they can come back to the office) but you have a plan, criteria and dates to review it.

In particular, I know some owners who asked all staff to accept a 20% pay cut right from the off, and in the clear knowledge that everyone was going to bear the brunt in exactly the same way.

They were also very clear about what was in their team members’ control, so they set new temporary KPIs including referrals per week, decision-maker conversations and what they should get from them when there are no jobs to fill.

B was one such owner, in the professional services space. He has radically changed his KPIs and reward scheme to reflect the importance of winning assignments rather than just filling jobs.

And he has made sure that at key dates all staff- including those on furlough- were sent an update on the trading conditions and next steps.

Changing your KPIs and reward scheme to suit market conditions is a positive move.

2. Get a close grip of your finances.

Getting really close to your finances in real-time has been a game-changer for some of the owners and directors I know. In good times, they might not have worried about invoices until they were 90 days overdue. In a similar vein, they let underperforming consultants hang on for months before taking action.

The best business leaders now have a daily dashboard. They know what deals are due to complete, what payments are due in and out this week and chase every timesheet. We have tightened up their terms and they are actually being applied, for example in the case of refund requests.

At a business I know, N only discovered she had not paid her business rates last year when I advised them to get a rebate for this year. This highlighted some very poor practices from her finance manager in terms of accruals and MI, which they have now faced and changed.

They know what they have to accrue for, so there are far fewer nasty surprises.

My client A agreed to change his charging model fundamentally, moving away from a fee based on a % of salary. It has been a gamechanger for the sales pitch and won considerable interest.

They are learning to lead in VUCA times by adapting.

The latest episode of The Recruitment Leadership Podcast goes into more detail about how to get a tighter grip on accounting and finance – take a listen to it here.

3. Fix the leaks.

The fall-off in deals has given some business owners the chance to look at some detail issues.

Most of us work with unsatisfactory systems, data that is no longer current, websites that don’t reflect clearly what we do, adverts that are poorly written and full of spelling errors, because we are too busy to fix them.

A few (fortunately very few) people I know have doubled down and sent more e-shots, more LI messages, posted more jobs etc i.e. they have focused on quantity without looking at quality.

Broadcasting sloppy content to a bigger audience just confirms more people in their poor opinion of your business. The best business leaders have used the opportunity to fix what is poor quality, to train where key techniques have been forgotten, to redesign where copy is out of date.

As a result, clients and candidates will get a better experience in future. I have worked with some particularly good examples where recruiters have sorted out a coherent marketing strategy and timetable for the first time ever.

K, in IT recruitment, had previously left most marketing to the individual and uncontrolled postings of their staff. There was nothing coherent about their brand communications – indeed some of it ran directly counter to the brand values they claimed to espouse.

Now, every piece of marketing communication features a demonstration of one of those brand pillars and is visually branded too. And a calendar for the whole business ensures that segments of their audience don’t get overwhelmed in one week.


One of the most important wins for my clients from all of this is that the steps they have taken (above) have given them a sense of control, even in these strange and unpredictable times. They will have to change again in future. But they know they can do it.

And in terms of their mental health, that’s priceless.


Alison Humphries is a highly experienced MD and NED, with 35 years at the top of the recruitment sector.

She advises directors and owners of recruitment businesses on strategy, finance, sales and management to maximise performance, enter new markets, prepare for sale and work more efficiently. 


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