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#BetterNormal: Leadership

Lucy Adams on June 29, 2020

#BetterNormal: Leadership


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Both the best and the worst examples of leadership have been on display throughout the crisis. But as things start to regain some semblance of normality, how should we redefine our expectations of leaders? Every leader and HR Director I speak to acknowledges that we can’t just go back to what we had, that this terrible crisis should result in something better for leadership. But what does ‘better normal’ leadership look like? In my opinion there are three elements of #BetterNormal leadership.

  • Leading with Trust
  • Leading with Optimism
  • Leading with Empathy

(I’d really hoped this would have resulted in a more impactful acronym than TOE! But sadly, this was all my Scrabble skills could produce!)

Leading with Trust

Despite our best efforts to make leadership more relevant for the disrupted world, command and control has remained the dominant leadership style. Our leaders kept on trying to be bigger and better than their teams, to know more and to have everything under control. With the fears about what we’re heading into, the ‘unknown unknowns’, the raging uncertainty, leaders will finally have to relinquish this pretence and move to a place where they trust the teams they have employed. This trust will take two forms; trust that their people will behave well, and trust that they are capable of using their judgement and making the right decisions about their customers, their work, their careers, their families and themselves.

For example, when the pandemic hit, the first thing Culture Amp did was to address the impact that the crisis was having on the speed of their decision-making. They created a daily situation room, a meeting where they ran through a deck of the latest information related to the crisis. They then published all the data on an open channel on Slack. Once they gave front line employees the data they needed to contextualise their decisions, they discovered that leaders were more comfortable distributing authority and allowing teams to make their own informed decisions, without wasting time chasing down information and approvals. ‘Autonomy means getting to make your own decisions, and being trusted to make your own decisions,’ argues CEO Elzinga. ‘But it also means trusting others to make decisions on your behalf, too.’

Leading with trust means starting from the assumption that your people can handle the truth and don’t need protecting from bad news as if they were children. If we think about the leaders who are getting the most praise right now, such as Jacinda Ardern or Andrew Cuomo, it’s clear that we want to be treated like grown-ups. The same needs to apply in work. As Josh Bersin writes, ‘Strong leaders give us the truth “as it is,” not “as we want it to be.”’

So, what does Leading with Trust look like after the crisis? #BetterNormal leaders will:

  • Give up the corporate spin and tell it like it is, – trusting that your people can cope with it.
  • Set light-touch rules, rather than long-winded, bureaucratic policies – trusting that your people can make the right decisions. For example, Swiss Re’s simple statement ‘Own the way you work’ instead of detailed flexible working practices.
  • Manage their people through outputs, not inputs such as hours worked. Lever and Let’s Go, for example, specify these outputs instead of detailed job descriptions, to help that thought process from the outset.

Leading with optimism

As an HRD, I used to get so fed up with moaning leaders. God, they really are hard work, aren’t they? Now, more than ever, we need our leaders to show the resilience and agility that comes with optimism, as well as the energy that it generates. Indeed, Gallup finds that 69% of employees who have optimistic leaders are more likely to be engaged in their work.

Whilst being optimistic as a leader might seem to contradict point one above, this is not about being some kind of corporate Pollyanna and avoiding tough messaging. Instead, it’s about finding the positive even in the direst of situations.

Even before the crisis, optimists tended to be better leaders.

They are:

  • Not afraid of failure
  • More solution-focused
  • Better collaborators
  • Better communicators
  • And more resilient

All traits that every business could do with right now.

A great example of that optimism spilling through during the crisis comes from Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh, who wrote a letter recently to employees encouraging them to focus on the crisis’ silver lining. ‘One of the things motivating me through this difficult time is the idea that we can learn and adapt and adjust so we emerge stronger as a result of this test,’ he wrote. The crisis ‘will pass. We will get through this together and be a better and stronger company as a result of it.’ Powerful stuff and leadership that you want to be around.

Optimism isn’t something we have traditionally looked for when we’re hiring leaders or included in our leadership competency frameworks. But we need to make sure we’re putting people into leadership positions who aren’t ‘glass half empty’! Dr Martin Seligman, the former president of the American Psychological Association and Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has devoted decades to studying optimistic people and reports that they tend to view adversity in their lives as temporary, specific and external, as opposed to pessimists who view adversity as unchangeable, pervasive, and more personal. If you’re thinking about how you might adapt your leadership recruitment questions to help identify optimists, here’s a questionnaire developed by Seligman that you might find useful!

So, what does Leading with Optimism look like after the crisis? #BetterNormal leaders will:

  • Experiment more. They’ll be more comfortable with being curious to try new approaches and won’t worry too much if they don’t work.
  • Abandon their long-term planning and instead will actively use sprint planning to enable them to respond to fast changing environments.
  • Praise more. And not just the successes, but those in their team who have tried new things, even if they failed.

Leading with Empathy

If there’s one trait that our leaders seem to have suddenly ‘got’ during the crisis, it’s empathy. I hear regular stories from HR about how the crisis has made their leaders more human, capable of compassion and genuine warmth. They’ve let down their guard and let their vulnerability show. When they ask the question, ‘how are you?’ they actually want to know the answer! We see them with their kids, their pets, in real-life environments as they struggle to look professional on Zoom – just like the rest of us.

It’s not like the importance of empathy is new. We’ve been talking about it for years but, as one recent study found, although leaders agree that they need to display more empathy, there is often an ‘empathy gap’ between the leader’s awareness of the issue and the way they’re seen by employees. The reason for this gap may be that leaders didn’t necessarily know how to exhibit empathy to their employees; 58% of CEOs say they struggle with consistently exhibiting empathy. Well, many of them don’t seem to be struggling now. Just take the example of Jeff Bezos who shared his genuine feelings and vulnerability in his message to employees. He wrote, ‘There is no instruction manual for how to feel at a time like this…My list of worries right now—like yours I’m sure—is long: from my own children, parents, family, friends, to the safety of you, my colleagues, to those of you that are already very sick, and to the real harm caused by the economic fallout across our communities.’ Or, the CEO, of Activision Blizzard,  Bobby Kotick, who handed out his personal phone number to the firm’s 10,000 employees during the crisis. When asked how many had taken him up on the offer, he confirmed that a “few hundred” had opted to call him.

Sustaining this warmth, this compassion, is going to be key for leaders as we start to emerge from a medical crisis and into a financial one. How we treat our people, our customers, our suppliers and our communities will shape our brand reputation, our employee brand and our levels of engagement in the coming months and years.

So, what does Leading with Empathy look like after the crisis? #BetterNormal leaders will:

  • Find creative solutions before making layoffs. Some high-profile leaders are applying the “leaders eat last” approach and taking pay cuts before having to get rid of their people.
  • Do the right thing by their people and their local communities. For example, Microsoft continued to pay its 4,500 hourly service providers, regardless of their hours worked and Luxury goods company Kering produced and donated surgical masks and medical coveralls.
  • Learn more about their team’s individual needs, wants, motivations etc so they can tailor/customise their leadership style to meet them.
  • Express gratitude. It shouldn’t need a pandemic for leaders to give thanks but now that they are, let’s not lose it.
  • Focus on the conversation and not assessment. No-one is missing the annual appraisal right now. Leaders will spend more time listening and engaging their people in great conversations rather than meaningless ratings.

So, creating a better normal will be about leading people with trust, optimism, and empathy rather than task management, command and control and assessment. Of course, that’s what great leadership has always been about, but now we’ve had a taste of it, we’ll be reluctant to simply go back to how things were.

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