Sponsored by

Founders Intelligence


February 29, 2024

Why — and how — economic uncertainty can benefit bold leaders

The past few years have been a rough ride for business leaders. But they have also provided a lesson in the value of entrepreneurial thinking

Sarah Drumm

4 min read

If you were to start a company today that would totally disrupt the one you currently work for, what would it look like?

That’s the question Irene Nocivelli, a senior manager at the corporate growth consultancy Founders Intelligence (FI), part of Accenture  — a consultancy that helps corporates define and deliver growth, often through partnering with and investing in startups, thinks the most ambitious corporate leaders should be asking themselves right now, at a time of increasing economic uncertainty. 

With crises from the Covid pandemic to rising inflation and geopolitical turmoil, business as usual is a thing of the past. 


But uncertain times can birth — and boost — bold leaders. Take the founders of fintechs like Monzo, Starling and Revolut. They all saw an opportunity to rethink what banking services should look like following the financial crisis, and today their services are integral to many customers’ lives. 

Nocivelli says all companies can learn from this. 

“There’s a misconception that startups are the only ones who pivot or change direction,” she says. “Change at a corporate is hard because of legacy systems and the amount of people. But if you can think like an entrepreneur, you’ll be in a better position.”

So what are the characteristics of a bold leader, and how do they sustain momentum during challenging times?

1/ Understand the long-term opportunity that crises can create 

Crisis creates new paradigms. Some are permanent — like social media changing the way we communicate — while others are temporary, like empty offices during pandemic lockdowns.

The smartest leaders can identify between the two. 

You should look at startups as a shortcut to insight, to help you understand their vision of the future.

To do this, they can look to emerging technologies and new consumer behaviours which can signal potential long-term changes. The startup ecosystem also holds valuable clues. For example, if venture capitalists are rushing to back certain sectors or business models, it should mean they have the research to back those convictions up. 

If you’re a scaleup or corporate, “you should look at startups as a shortcut to insight, to help you understand their vision of the future and how that will affect your company,” says Nocivelli. 

She suggests a “first principles” approach to tackling challenges within a business, where breaking a problem down to its basic building blocks can lead to more innovative and entrepreneurial solutions.

Still, the future is never certain. Nocivelli says the boldest leaders she has worked with don’t stubbornly bulldoze ahead with their strategy. Instead, they allocate specific moments to review their beliefs about the future to see if they need to course-correct.

2/ Bring your team along on the growth journey 

Resetting the strategy isn’t something that happens in a vacuum. To successfully affect change, bold leaders bring their teams along, too. 

One way of doing this is by empowering them to become leaders themselves, such as in the case of DLA Piper, a global law firm which was founded in 2005 through a series of mergers.  

People push back on change when they don’t know where it comes from or how it affects them.

“Law firms can typically be quite conservative and slow to embrace digital advancements. We’re fortunate to have exceptional teams,” says Simon Levine, the firm’s global co-CEO.  

One of the reasons DLA Piper has remained competitive is its ability to innovate, embracing cutting-edge tech like generative AI. Last year, the firm worked with software company Reveal to launch an AI-powered compliance tool called Aiscension. It scans communications and internal documents to detect issues such as bribery. The project was headed up by Ilan Sherr, DLA Piper’s competition lawyer-turned-AI deployer. 

Levine says the firm encourages its teams to take ownership of new projects. “We stress the importance of being bold and innovating, which means having the courage to challenge the status quo and the drive to exceed expectations,” says Levine. 

Making sure the wider organisation is brought into the vision is critical, too. “There’s that quote, culture eats strategy for breakfast,” Nocivelli says. “But it’s true. People push back on change when they don’t know where it comes from or how it affects them.”

So sharing the wider story around how the strategic vision came to be is key as it will help employees feel like they are part of driving change forwards. 

Bold leaders should take cues from how startups market their products: rather than talking about how their SaaS product works, they focus on how great it feels to be more productive at work. In the same way, a successful leader should be able to communicate the experience the strategy shift will create for staff.

3/ Innovate for the future, not just for tomorrow

Perhaps one of the most important qualities of a bold leader is the ability to not get distracted from their wider mission in times of turmoil.

Look longer-term and invest counter-cyclically.

Understanding how an economic shock might affect business is important, but allocating resources to fix short-term problems can be counter productive, says Nocivelli. 

“Look longer-term and invest counter-cyclically,” she advises. “There might be lots of things happening in your industry, but if you’re just looking at the turmoil you might forget about what's happening longer term.”

To epitomise this, Nocivelli shares another question bold leaders should be asking themselves right now: “What is urgent now, and will it still be urgent or important in five years from now?”