Leading a business over the last few years has been akin to steering a ship through a particularly violent storm, and there is little sign of that changing any time soon. With interest rates skyrocketing and operating costs still vastly inflated, chaos and uncertainty are rife. Understandably, many business leaders are struggling, so we invited Nicola Thompson, the former CEO of MADE.com, to address the challenges they’re facing at our latest CEO Circle.

All Together’s CEO Circles are confidential, round-table discussions focused on pertinent business issues, hosted and moderated by our expert Volunteer Advisors. Nicola’s experience in leading MADE through some of the most tumultuous circumstances imaginable is a case study in astounding resilience, expert leadership, and commendable composure, and so we were delighted to have her on board for this month’s session.

If you would like to know more about the MADE story, our recent podcast episode with Nicola is an extremely insightful and useful listen. Tune in on Spotify and Apple now.

Alignment is Vital

When you’re caught in the eye of the storm, the very first thing you need to do is to assess your lifeboat strategy – what does your business need to do to make it back to shore safely? “Defining what is going on and making sure everyone is absolutely clear on the moving parts of the crisis is the first part of identifying the solution”, Nicola explained.

Nicola Thompson CV crop

Nicola Thompson’s CV Highlights

2022 // CEO – MADE.com

2019-2022 // COO – MADE.com

2014-2019 // Various – ASOS

2012-2014 // Commercial Director – Atterley Road

2008-2012 // Various – WHISTLES

2002-2008 // E-comm and Core Merchandising – TOPSHOP/TOPMAN

“Then you need to consider the key differences between your current situation and the last time you were stable.” From there, Nicola argued that you can identify the key indicators of success for your business – baseline levels that, when maintained, guarantee stability and security. By agreeing on those key indicators, you ensure that everyone is on the same page, pulling in a single direction.

“Once you have that main effort nailed down, drop everything else that doesn’t contribute to it”, Nicola advised. The aim is to streamline your entire strategy to focus on the core elements of your survival because you cannot afford to waste time and resources on anything else. Once you have done this, the next phase is to develop a clear plan: a series of smaller, more specific steps that must be taken to achieve your main effort.

“Once you have decided on the supporting efforts that sit under your main effort, spread them out across the organisation for people to complete”, Nicola instructed. “That leaves you free to get out of the way, monitor what is going on, and put your time and effort into the things that only the CEO can do.”

The benefits of this strategy are vast and plentiful. It allows you to focus on the aspects of your business that are crucial to staying afloat, guarantees your teams are on the same page, convinces them to put in more investment by demonstrating a clear road to recovery, and is also vital in cultivating confidence at board level.

Temper Transparency with Hope

A strategy like this relies on a significant level of transparency, however, and this was queried by one of our members, “How transparent were you about that main effort and what it meant in terms of what work was and was not going to be done?” they asked. This is a pertinent question in business even at the best of times, but especially during testing circumstances. A lack of transparency leads to distrust, but too much can lead to despair. Neither eventuality is conducive to a resilient, survivalist mentality, and so the CEO must strike a quite delicate balance.

“In terms of our main effort, we were totally transparent as early as possible”, Nicola recalled, “but beyond that, it’s a case of standing in front of your team and leading authentically.” To facilitate this, MADE held town halls – 30-minute sessions where the management team updated the rest of the organisation – every other week.

“You need to be honest about the problems you’re facing so that you maintain a level of trust, but you also need to provide a way of keeping hope alive”, Nicola claimed. “You do that by explaining what your plan is, why you’ve chosen that plan, and how it will give the business a route through the crisis.”

Double Down on Reporting and Communication

Sharing her own experience of crisis, another member of the group detailed how she had to “work nimbly and remove barriers”, and asked Nicola if she had experienced the same thing at MADE. “Definitely”, Nicola replied, “crisis tends to present you with a constantly changing environment, and that throws up new barriers all the time.”

To remove those roadblocks, Nicola emphasised the importance of reporting and communication. “Alongside the shifts happening externally, we were also changing things frequently in the business, ourselves”, she explained, “and it was sometimes difficult to see the effects those changes were having, so we focused strongly on real-time reporting.”

Nicola and her team made a conscious effort to keep themselves updated with how the business was performing, but those reports meant nothing if they were not analysed, so MADE committed to daily ‘war rooms’ where they met as a team to discuss their findings.

“I would encourage everybody to find a real-time tool that helps you manage highly volatile situations”, declared Nicola. “We used Trello at MADE to keep track of the actions, who was accountable for them, how much progress we’d made, and the results were outstanding.”

A commitment to frequent communication keeps ambiguity at bay and allows everyone to understand what they need to do. In a chaotic environment, having clarity on one’s tasks can offer a semblance of control and purpose, which allows individuals and teams to work more effectively and efficiently.

Managing the Personal Side of Crisis

To round off the discussion, the group were keen to focus on the personal side of leading through chaos. “How did you deal with that pressure every day?” asked one participant. “What strategies did you use to help you get through it?”

“Every morning, I would ask myself, ‘What are the five things that are really in my control that are going to be the highest impact actions?'” Nicola replied. “I didn’t focus too far ahead because anything beyond 48 hours when you’re in crisis becomes quite overwhelming.”

Another of our members chimed in at this point to offer the ‘Eat the Frog’ strategy. “The idea is to complete the task you dread the most – and are therefore most likely to waste time on by procrastinating – first”, they clarified. “It’s a really good way of getting a sense of achievement early in the day and it makes everything else seem relatively straightforward.”

Crisis is emotionally taxing for everyone involved and it’s easy to get caught up trying to look after your teams, but your personal wellbeing must remain a priority because it is you that your teams look to for strength. Finding ways to manage your emotions, whether it’s by breaking down tasks, tackling the most challenging things first, or focusing on what you can control, can make the undertaking that bit more manageable.


We are absolutely delighted with the success of this CEO Circle, and that is testament to Nicola’s invaluable advice and her ability to articulate it so well to our members. We’d like to thank her, and all those who attended the session, for making this such an extraordinarily insightful and advice-driven discussion.

If you are a business leader struggling with a crisis of your own, apply to All Together today for up to 5 hours of pro bono mentoring from a leading UK CEO, every year.