Building back better-leadership for the future
“The remit couldn’t be more exciting. To try to imagine what the new normal will look like and try and plot a path towards it from wherever we are now”.
Lockdown has begun. The “Way Ahead” group has changed its name to “Bounce-Back”. Leader Ian is trying to galvanise his less than enthusiastic team into action. They are of course meeting virtually. “Every problem is a solution waiting to happen” he enthuses. “We’re looking at the biggest positive any of us have ever seen so that’s another big positive to take out” The solution the team comes up with is to re-run 2012 which was (let’s face it) a much better year.
OK – so they aren’t a real team. They are the wonderful BBC W1A mockumentary actors. In the real world leaders like Ian, hoping to turn back the clock, and lead with unbelieveable flannel are highly likely to come unstuck. So how can we make ourselves and our teams stronger and more resilient?
What structures do we need?
The current crisis has illuminated in bright shiny technicolour how suddenly everything can change. It’s shown us how interconnected we are across the globe. It has shown us how quickly we need to adapt. Command and control leadership and rigid structures may find it harder to respond in this environment than fast flexible units. Research after the 2008 financial crisis found that companies that moved fast, early and decisively faired best. And if there is one thing that we’ve seen in the last few months – it’s proof that changes we thought difficult and impossible can be made rapidly. Reducing endless committees and allowing great ideas to be tried quickly can pay dividends. Take your GP surgery. In Britain, less than 1 percent of initial medical consultations took place via video link in 2019; under lockdown, almost all are occurring remotely.
What do our teams need?
Vision. The level of uncertainty we are operating in is having a profound effect on all of us. Our teams need us to give them a vision more than ever. They need us to create a sense of the future at a time when that has never seemed less certain. That may not be easy for us. In crisis our brains instinctively move into survival mode – we’re more likely to be thinking short term – focusing on the next week / day / minute. In-fact we need to rediscover our aspirations for the future.
Predictability. We’re wired to perform most efficiently in a predictable environment. Much of that has gone too. Our teams can benefit from us putting back some predictability and routine. Regular contact with clear information – even if there is little or nothing to say, recognising achievements – however small – is more important than ever.
Honesty. In challenging times when everyone is looking for sense in the madness, leaders need to display clarity, compassion and honesty, even in the face of the toughest news.
Leadership at a distance. Whilst remote working isn’t the answer to everything – there will continue to be thousands of operations that cannot be done with a remote workforce – there will be more of it. It’s a trend that started way before COVID – and it requires particular leadership skills. Reduced physical contact can mean we miss signals and emotional information from others. Leaders need to make time to listen, and be tuning in to how their team is feeling. Each individual will fare differently. Some will struggle away from the office. Setting the boundaries between work and home is more tricky and clarity over expectations is needed from leaders. If you answer e mails at 3 am – does that mean they have to as well? Remote working does give opportunities too. As a single mum I am delighted not to be tearing up and down the country on delayed trains. I am no longer disadvantaged being the only one not “in the room” in the London mothership. There is a real opportunity to be far more geographically diverse and representative.
What do leaders need?
There is one person in all this that leaders must not overlook. Themselves.
Tougher challenges lie ahead. Climate change is likely to throw up many of the same issues as the current pandemic. Leaders for the future will need resilience for themselves if they as well as their teams. Leading through change and crisis, having the courage to make decisions faster with less certainty, operating with more remote workers – is all challenging and consuming of time and energy. If we are to develop sustainable resilience we need to develop our own awareness of our responses and strengths.
We need optimism, perspective and curiosity… to ask and understand what we have learnt, to lead and build back better.