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From analysis (and anxiety) to transformation
Andrew White argues that it's time to focus on finding the opportunities in Brexit.


It is easy to get gloomy when thinking about the task ahead. The last nine months have been full of talk about pricing risk, weakening currencies, and uncertainty. But, given that Article 50 has now been triggered, I think we ought to shift our thinking to focus on finding the opportunities in Brexit.

The City of London, for example, has been through centuries of disruption. It has endured a civil war, fire, plague, two world wars, economic bubbles, and recessions. But it is still here: it has an innate resilience that we need to build on, and maybe even find anew  for today’s challenge. Even now, while Goldman Sachs and others have announced that they are moving staff out of London, Deutsche Bank has just signed a 25-year lease on a new building, consolidating all their offices in London into one huge skyscraper. We know how easy it is to talk ourselves into depression: this is a time when business and the City need to accentuate the positive. Isn’t that what leadership is fundamentally about – describing a vision of the future and then moving towards it?

It is arguable that in recent decades we’ve become quite complacent, and that is something that will have to change. Big companies love stability and predictability, but if we have to rebuild our economy it’s going to be about creating jobs, spotting opportunities, and becoming much more entrepreneurial. I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a whole load of complexity that we will have to grapple with. But fundamentally it will come down to leadership, and the ability of business leaders to understand the changing landscape, build new relationships, become more adaptive and flexible, and find and create work.

The challenges will be about how quickly this can be done, the extent to which we can change, and how far our new opportunities can compensate for what we may ‘lose’ with Brexit.

There is also an urgent need to build our managerial capability in all areas, particularly when it comes to international business development. Making sure you have the right people in the right places, redesigning supply chains, reskilling and upskilling the workforce, creating new agreements and contracts, ensuring compliance with new rules – these are all managerial issues. They are hugely time-consuming and, unless properly delegated to capable, high-quality managers, will distract leaders from looking outwards, seizing new opportunities, and enabling people and organisations to act entrepreneurially.

Here is it useful to think about Stephen Covey’s powerful idea of circles of concern and circles of influence (presented in the book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). His basic premise is that proactive people  focus their efforts on the ‘circle of influence’ – that is, the things that they can do something about. Reactive people, on the other hand, are more concerned with worrying about things over which they have no control (the ‘circle of concern’). By being proactive, and devoting energy to the aspects of wider problems that they can affect, successful people actually extend their circle of influence  to cover issues in their circle of concern. .

Many companies have rightly spent time in detailed analysis of what various Brexit scenarios will mean for their business. My sense is that waiting for the final deal to be clear will be too late to become successfully proactive. Action is required much sooner. At a very practical level, sales budgets for the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Americas will be higher than for Europe; companies will need to set budgets that reflect this. In addition,  recruitment of new people with experience in these markets will be critical to successful expansion into them. This is just one idea about what becoming proactive in this space might mean; M&A activity and product sourcing reviews are others. The key here is becoming ‘proactive’ rather than being a passive recipient of this situation. It is about not being trapped in anxiety but taking seriously the challenge of transformational leadership. 



Andrew White View profile

Andrew White is Associate Dean for Executive Education at Saïd Business School and Fellow of Green Templeton College at the University of Oxford. An experienced programme director, teacher and researcher, his areas of expertise include innovation management and leadership development.