What now for leadership?

‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, it is the one that is the most adaptable to change’

Welcome back to de-cooded, after a break of several months. These longer-form digests are written exclusively for our clients and broader community to provide a synthesis of current events and provide practical insights for leaders. The lens we apply is leadership and organisational culture as we believe that aligning an organisation’s collective mindsets and behaviours (culture) is key both to leadership and to the successful execution of any strategy.

All change!

The Covid-19 pandemic has created profound shocks on both the supply and demand side for most organisations as well as disrupting individuals’ domestic patterns in ways few were prepared for. Organisations’ experience of the past 10-months has been highly varied – a (significant) minority have enjoyed a happy tailwind to their operations as people spent more on their homes and relied more on technology, whilst others have experienced an existential crisis as their market virtually disappeared overnight.

The majority of organisations, however, which could be described as an ‘unhappy middle’, remain viable enterprises but have experienced extensive disruption, reduced incomes and have had to take significant action to weather the extended storm. Whatever the market dynamics, all organisations have had to adjust to new ways of working, with the majority (and in some cases all) of people being forced to work from home, taking remote working from being a niche practice used by global teams and innovative software companies into the mainstream.

In all this disruption, it has been difficult to pick out themes and draw useful lessons for leaders with insights being rapidly overtaken by events. Only now are the lessons starting to emerge and, whilst many countries remain in some sort of lockdown, the contours of the post-Covid world of work are starting to take shape. Therefore, it felt like the right time for us to resume de-cooded and offer our perspectives, derived from working with the talented leaders we are lucky enough to call our clients who have been navigating their organisations through the challenges of the past year.

A leader’s view

Early in the pandemic and as national lockdowns started to be applied, there was a strong sense that ‘all bets were off’ for 2020, with strategic plans and budgets being jettisoned in favour of a more tactical focus on keeping employees safe, and protecting cash. Smart leaders recognised the opportunity to accelerate existing plans and to shorten decision-making cycles. When we conducted a survey of CEOs in May, (the results being synthesised in our ‘CEO Culture Barometer’), we found many CEOs having a ‘good crisis’, enjoying the direct and action-orientated style that such a situation encourages and feeling empowered by the immediacy of the challenge. Others found it necessary to delegate authority to get things done effectively, enjoying the way subordinates rose to the challenge.

In all cases, there was a sense of an adrenaline-fuelled environment where bureaucracy was pushed aside in favour of action with many expressing surprise at how quickly it was possible to get things done when focus and urgency was shared and process took a back seat. You could almost hear the sound of old assumptions being replaced with a crisis-fuelled understanding about what is actually possible.

The end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end?

Since the heady days of summer, a grim reality has set in with leaders and their teams coming out of crisis mode (some reluctantly) and recognising that they need to progress strategic projects whatever the landscape. There are also serious questions being asked about what sort of leadership is required in this new world – even if it is temporary. With the end not yet in sight, many leaders are deeply fatigued and are struggling to make sense of what 2021 will look like and what is required of them. At the same time, the usual mechanisms provided by office life that enabled leaders to connect with employees, develop alignment and ‘sense’ their organisations are absent as everyone is now working remotely.

The reality is that many organisations have reached a major point of reset in how they work and, in order to be effective, leaders must also go through a reset in their mindset and practices in order to lead their organisations effectively in the future.

This de-cooded focuses on what the implications are for leaders and offers practical advice on what practices they can put into use to adjust to this new situation. It is clear now that, even when Covid-19 is behind us, workplaces will look and feel very different to their pre-crisis incarnations, with more flexible, hybrid working models being the norm. This will demand a new model of leadership to the one that worked in an office-centred world requiring a degree of change by all leaders. As the quotation at the start of the article (wrongly attributed to Charles Darwin) points to, it is the leaders who are most able to adapt to this new situation who will be successful, and lead successful organisations, in the future.

The four C’s

Journalists and commentators have been busy laying out the elevated importance for leaders during the Covid crisis of what can be summarised by ‘the four C’s’: Clarity, Connection, Collaboration and Compassion (summarised by Andrew Hill in the FT) but little has been written to offer practical suggestions. A good place to start is the blog by Coode consultant Julian Cripps on how to engage staff in a world without offices.

In addition to this excellent advice, we want to highlight three themes that have had less coverage and are not immediately intuitive to leaders in the thick of managing through what for many will be uncharted waters.

1. Shaping the narrative

Think about how people relate to their work – what’s their personal ‘narrative’? When work centred on physical offices, it is easy for a narrative around the organisation to be shaped and sustained. How individuals relate to the organisation, its mission and progress are transmitted and reinforced through the physical environment, meetings, regular updates and informal conversations, with little opportunity for other narratives to creep in.With the majority of offices now closed, this has changed dramatically with employees having a range of inputs shaping how they think and their own personal narratives (the news, friends, families, etc), most of which will be negative and not necessarily aligned with the organisational narrative. This individualising of the narratives is amongst the drivers for noticeable increases in people moving home, changing careers and even divorce. Old patterns have disappeared, and people are filling the gap, based on their personal narrative.To keep this from causing fragmentation and isolation amongst teams and the broader workforce, leaders must actively take steps to shape individuals’ narrative in ways they have not had to in the past. In addition to broader communications, a more individual approach will tease out how people are really feeling and what the world looks like from their perspective. It’s also necessary to more actively communicate the organisational narrative to ensure that it’s heard amongst all the other noise.

2. Take time to think

One of the most frequent requests we hear of their leaders from their teams is for them to be taking time to think, looking over the horizon and identifying what they are not seeing. And yet, because of a mix of extreme operational pressures and digital tools that allow leaders to reach deeper into their organisations, most are busier than ever and more involved in the detail of the running of their organisations. At a time when it is easy to mistake ‘working from home’ for ‘living in the office’, days are often full of online meetings with even less time to stop and think than before.As profoundly counter-intuitive as it may sound, now is the time for leaders to back off, let their teams take on the operational load, be well rested and think strategically. Apart from taking a (very) small number of strategically important decisions each year, it is a leader’s central role to act as a conductor would to an orchestra: keeping their attention on the overall effect, coaching and encouraging individuals and ensuring the right connections are made where necessary.All this requires a leader to avoid getting caught up in the detail and remain above it, intervening only when necessary and being the conscience of both the strategy and the human side of the organisation (culture). If this is not at least 50% of your time, you will be an overhead to your team, rather than an asset, and you will be underplaying what is arguably your most important role.

3. Connect

This is the moment for a more human side of leadership to come to the fore. Even if your organisation is one of the few having a ‘good Covid’ your people will be under unprecedented pressure and the level of engagement, collaboration, innovation and morale will all depend on a leader’s ability to recognise individuals as people and for them to be heard appreciated and valued. This is not a time for a ‘just get on with it’ attitude but for leaders to show themselves as people and allow a greater level of humanity and vulnerability than they have in the past.

Whilst this may be uncomfortable for many, it is also what Gen Z, who are entering the workforce today expect from their leaders anyway. So, like many other aspects of the Covid crisis, it is accelerating trends that are already in motion.

If you have read this far into this article, then congratulations, you have successfully taken time to stop and think. Much of good leadership depends on not just doing things, but thinking deeply about the organisation you are responsible for, what success looks like and your role in that success.

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Coode Associates supports and advises companies on leadership development, organisational effectiveness and alignment and shaping culture. If you’d like to know more about our work, we’d love to hear from you: info@coodeasssociates.com.

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