Leadership to navigate the postpandemic future - comment

Business leadership in a crisis can look very different than in times of stability.

People need to feel connected to the organisation’s larger purpose and values, says Hawkins. Picture: contributed.
People need to feel connected to the organisation’s larger purpose and values, says Hawkins. Picture: contributed.

By definition, leadership is about having a vision and a plan to navigate the future – that hasn’t changed. But right now, caring and compassionate leadership practices are more essential than ever to support workers and the communities in which organisations operate through the pandemic.

So, as we begin to see the first signs of this crisis passing, businesses need to create forward momentum from some of the transformational changes that have taken place.

As an organisation that conducts extensive studies of the workplace, we were able to collate research spanning more than 15,600 global workers in ten countries and across 15 industries to review this from a Covid-19 perspective.

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Different leadership qualities and actions were tested to show statistically which traits made the most significant impacts with workforces. Then, in the context of the current crisis, we analysed how people and management connect to achieve the best business outcomes.

One of the most striking themes to emerge was the need to give colleagues a sense of belonging. In particular, people need to feel connected to the organisation’s larger purpose and values. Leaders’ values remain key to their future.

Even if their corporate vision may have changed, communicating that new or renewed sense of purpose, both amongst colleagues and externally, creates the common goals that drive people and companies forward.

Effective communication

But communication is a two-way process. It’s crucial for people to feel empowered to help shape what happens next. This is not the time for traditional top-down chains of command; leadership teams need to seek staff input during decision-making. An insight from an earlier piece of Accenture research found that there can be a significant perception gap between senior teams and their workforces.

As leaders, we may think our strategies are having an impact, but our colleagues may not agree. This is a time to use data wisely to build trust by undertaking detailed employee sentiment analysis – across the organisation – to shape more meaningful communication.

What’s more, while leaders need to communicate with compassion, they also need to do so with authenticity. Whether a message feels real, rather than forced, can depend entirely on who is put forward to deliver it. This may mean dispensing with the old managerial hierarchies and putting different people front and centre.

When we are all navigating uncharted territory, a distinct and visible skillset is needed – forget about spewing data, the ability to put a human narrative around everything is now essential. Bringing a sense of calm understanding to employees grappling with life under lockdown will help working lives reach a happier and more productive place. We have all been forced to rethink our workloads and how we structure our working day.

Being clear about what can be put on hold and what needs to continue can not only remove unessential work but, for many of us, will also increase productivity. Sustaining such improved productivity should now be part of our thinking as we make plans to emerge stronger from this crisis.

Organisations will need to train managers on how to lead a remote workforce, while investing in remote work capabilities. This crisis has been a test of agility. For it to be truly transformative, we need to start leading our people and firms toward a new culture that sees fully modernised digital capabilities as an opportunity. Businesses able to adapt digitally will be better-placed to navigate the future.

Responsible leadership has taken on an even deeper meaning. Leaders help people develop human resilience, and the effectiveness of leadership teams will be judged on their ability to look ahead with purpose, responding rather than reacting to the unfamiliar when steering people through volatile times.

Michelle Hawkins is the joint managing director of Accenture Scotland

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