Beyond Covid: the future of leadership

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What skillset is required to be a good leader in 2021?

 

How has Covid shifted the focus for leadership?

There’s no doubt 2020 brought about significant hardships and challenges across the globe which are continuing into this new year; for many leaders within businesses, it has felt like a battle to survive. Fresh challenges thrust forward by the pandemic such as leading teams 100% remotely, navigating fear and uncertainty and processing disruption are all now a crucial component of great leadership. Whilst the challenges have magnified the ‘ask’ of leaders, arguably the people leadership capabilities on which success is founded are not entirely new.

To a leader, the health and well-being of their people is of paramount importance; there is a duty of care and a recognition that talented people are still a business’ most valuable asset.  When leaders fail to connect or to create an inclusive culture, a rapid erosion of goodwill and discretionary effort follows. Productivity, innovation and engagement are the casualties of distant leadership; leaders must counteract physical distance with trust and communication. As the tectonic plates of people management have shifted over the course of 2020, navigating this landscape has not only increased in complexity, but the world of work has been irrevocably altered.

How has it impacted the requirements of effective leadership?

Whilst acknowledging the significant change in environment, we should beware of falling into the trap of the Emperor’s new clothes whereby we approach leadership as a whole new playing field without understanding that it isn’t a whole new set of capabilities. Familiar development challenges remain such as flexing style to create connection and rapport, communicating effectively, listening, delegating to create strategic space, and maintaining healthy boundaries between work and home. If the required mindset or a skill gap was already holding you back from greater success, the struggle will compound as this becomes essential in order to survive, engage, motivate and lead successfully through the challenges presented and embedded over the last year and now the new year.

Existing cracks or vulnerabilities in capability have widened as communication, connection and agility have been tested. Leaders need to dig deep and be more ready to learn rapidly; as we can already see as we move into 2021, this will remain a necessity. Many in leadership positions naturally have a strength in either commercial/technical ability or people management and, now more than ever, the skill set must be more rounded to achieve sustainable success. Firms can no longer tolerate commercials over people (or vice versa) as good enough. Job security fears may retain employees for now but there is an attrition time bomb ahead for when the climate is less uncertain. People leave managers far more quickly than they leave firms. The smart firms are investing in developing leaders now to ensure they have the expertise and emotional intelligence to support growth while navigating the engagement and motivational challenges that manifested throughout the last 12 months and will continue well into 2021.

Increasing self-awareness, self-regulation and questioning skills enables leaders to get curious about their own and others’ emotions and behaviours, surfacing early the high risk issues such as burn-out for high performers and when to take preventative action.  Decisiveness and clarity increases when leaders have support to think through issues clearly and test their assumptions. This is where coaching plays a vital role in creating strategic headspace for leaders and releasing any blockers or breaking unhelpful barriers to success.

What are some of the key challenges in adapting to agile and remote leadership and how can you overcome them?

The leadership pendulum swung violently to the left with the suddenness of COVID’s impact in March 2020. Just take universal remote working; most businesses weren’t ready to lead or work in this new way and we’re still learning how to do this effectively. What is now clear, is that remote leadership is here to stay beyond COVID and with that comes the threat of disconnection, stress and burn-out. So, counter-intuitively leaders need to slow down rather than speed up to be intentionally agile and sustainable. Rational, measured thinking is by-passed when we default to our more emotional, threat-detecting part of the brain. The ‘amygdala hijack’1, whereby the flight/flight/freeze response takes over in response to danger, leads to emotional and survival-driven responses. Leaders need to learn how to slow down and access longer-term, logical thinking through raising self-awareness and understanding of what’s going on in their brains and how to regulate emotions.2

Healthy rhythms to the day/week/month are a means to both survival and clear thinking. Creating boundaries between home and work is of utmost importance now that it’s typical to find yourself on calls back-to-back all day. Creating spaces, rituals and habits every day and building in recovery time in short bursts throughout the day is vital. Leaders need to do this for themselves and make it OK (or rather expected) that their people will do the same. Creating the social support network to let off steam and normalise pressures is key when we feel more isolated. The practical solutions are not difficult to come up with but giving yourself permission to do this and maintaining new habits is the key. Professional coaching can play a vital role in helping people get new perspectives and invert limiting assumptions, ultimately enabling leaders to commit to making behaviour and/or thinking changes. Invest in a ‘thinking partner’ who will challenge you, encourage you and unlock the hardwired limiting beliefs that hold you back from change.

So, what should be your critical focus?

Connection, connection, connection. Empathy, listening and two-way communication have never been more critical to bringing people with you. If we’ve learnt anything from the past year it’s that combating physical remoteness through communicative closeness is the way leaders stay connected to the people who make it happen. Leaders must lead by example by dialling up empathy, increasing their listening to speaking ratio and asking great questions. Moreover, they must set the expectation that other leaders do the same with their teams. Only this way can they be on the front foot ahead of the burn out curve and get on top of business issues early. A strong corporate well-being offering is vital to support employees but it starts with the narrative from the most proximate leadership role model. People experience culture through their leader. And as we all know: culture eats strategy for breakfast.3

What changes do leaders need to make to their approach to be more effective in this new world of work?

How leaders show up every day is a choice. They are under immense pressure and it’s a tough gig. They are not perfect although expectation from the floor is otherwise. First and foremost they are human. Luckily, leveraging humanity is crucial to your success. What does this mean?

  • Step 1: now is the time to bring humanity to the fore in order to lead authentically. This doesn’t mean public hand-wringing but showing you share and empathise with challenges and acknowledging that your own learning never stops. Courageously choose to connect by reminding your teams you are human too and consider what they need from you that’s different from your go-to approach. Dial up your empathy and your communication.
  • Step 2: create a ‘to be’ list4. Choose something at the start of the day that you want people to say about their experience of you today.  By prioritising ‘to be’ alongside ‘to do’, leaders engage mindfully and intentionally with their people, better able to catch themselves when fear/stress/fatigue threatens to take over. Be mindful of what it would take to ‘be’ the leader you want to be today and review the results at the end of the day/week.
  • Step 3: invest in creating time to think, having someone to challenge your assumptions and prioritising healthy rhythms. Slow down the emotional hijack in order to access longer-term thinking, clarity and self-regulation and break the echo chamber of your own mind through accessing disputing perspectives. People are looking to you for cues and role modelling; make sure you get the support you need and put your own mask on first.

All of this is crucial to navigating the current COVID world but it’s much more about the future of work. We aren’t returning to the way it was before so these are priorities for the long term. Authenticity, communication and connection is at the core of brilliant leadership. It always has been and it’s the differentiator for the future in an increasingly complex and fragmented working world.

1. Emotional Intelligence: why it can matter more than IQ. Daniel Goleman. Bloomsbury: 1996
2. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2011
3. Attributed to Peter Drucker
4.  The CEO Moment: Leadership for a new era. McKinsey Quarterly: July 21 2020

 


Georgie Rudd is the Founder and Director of Rudd Coaching Ltd.
Georgie is an accredited Executive Coach with Henley Business School, the International Coaching Federation and is CIPD qualified. She brings over 20 years’ experience of leading Talent & Leadership Development functions across FTSE 100 Financial Services and Management Consulting firms, having designed and delivered high impact leadership and coaching programmes at every level from graduate through to Executive.  Directly prior to establishing her own practice, Georgie built and led a brand new L&D function at an award winning management consultancy, ranked #3 ‘Great Place to Work’ in the UK.  Georgie dedicates her energy to coaching because she believes this is the most fertile ground for transformational change.  Her Executive Coaching practice is founded on the principle of creating a “thinking partnership” with clients. The approach is characterised by catalytic listening, high empathy and deep challenge, drawing on a range of research-based psychological and behavioural practices. The result is actionable intelligence for every client. For more information, contact georgie@ruddcoaching.co.uk

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