03/09/2015

By Tom Monahan, CEB Chairman & CEO

Over two weeks into market turmoil triggered by the plunge in Chinese stocks, pundits have offered no shortage of advice for everyone from retail investors to central bankers. But they have little to say for the executives and leadership teams responsible for making critical resource allocation and talent decisions for their companies.

For these leaders, we are offering a clear view of what's going on, what to expect, and most importantly, the questions leaders need to be asking right now.

Above all else, it's important to keep in mind that recent developments represent a correction in equity markets, not a sudden collapse of economic fundamentals. It doesn't currently require massive change.

While financial markets are hardly independent of 'real' economies, their moves do not always reflect meaningful changes in 'real' economies, but executives would also be wrong to do nothing at all.

What follows are 10 questions every leader should answer right now to determine readiness

1. Are we helping others distinguish signal from noise? – The amount of information moving through stakeholders has become a problem; it's difficult for non-experts to understand what is relevant. Ensure your outbound communications (to investors, employees, business customers and partners) clearly convey where your organization's business model is – and isn't – exposed.

2. Are we putting the situation in context? – Leaders and employees need to understand the relative importance of things that the organization can and cannot control in the face of volatility. Revenue growth stalls are more impacted by controllable versus uncontrollable factors. Focus on the controllable.

3. Are we turning off our customers? – Given widespread stock ownership in advanced economies, customers will feel stung with paper losses (and some with real ones). Check your commercial communications for tone, ensuring you're not seemingly unaware or insensitive.

Should the current correction become a deeper slow down, the questions get harder:

4. Do our existing cost-containment plays still stand? – Most organizations developed significant experience with cost management during the great recession and its aftermath. Review those plays to ensure they reflect changed conditions and re-institute when ready

5. Have we overlooked any areas of exposure? – Most business lines exposed to China have factored in a wide range of risk scenarios, but the strategist may want to conduct an enterprise-level review of strategic initiatives that may be impacted by current market volatility. Evaluate the impact of a China contagion scenario (or a more broad-based recessionary scenario) to see which initiatives might be the first impacted, and what steps could be considered to bolster them.

6. Is additional financial oversight doing more damage than the economic situation that triggered it? – Many finance teams' first urge when financial and strategic risks are elevated is to control and to govern. Financial bureaucracy is harming innovation and growth in large corporations that are more focused on engineering expense performance than funding innovation. Move slowly before embracing the usual suspects like zero-based budgeting, more frequent/intense opex and capex review meetings, or new hurdle rate policies

7. Has our M&A pipeline become vulnerable to other buyers? – Most strategic buyers will not respond to macro changes in pricing driven by the current market volatility. They are watching private equity closely, though, as opportunities that were on their target list could disappear if valuations become especially attractive. Examine your own M&A pipeline to see if any targets are at risk.

8. Even if we're ok, how healthy are our suppliers? – As learned during the recession, supply-chain partner exposure and problems can easily affect your organization. Push for transparency with partners to ensure clear understanding of their exposure to possible "contagion" and market volatility, as well as to their overall financial health.

9. Are we keeping an eye on our HIPOs? – One-in-four high-potential employees plan on quitting during periods of significant volatility. Over-invest in HIPOs by giving them differentiated development opportunities and recognition. Enable managers to set and clarify their objectives and how they contribute to the business.

10. Are our talent pipelines deteriorating in impacted regions? – Recruiting pipelines are likely to erode in business lines with exposure to regions with significant market volatility. Focus on retaining candidates in critical talent pipelines by heightened efforts to create positive employment brand perception. At the same time, seek to capture valuable talent from competitors that may come unstuck for hard-to-fill positions.