This is a recording of a webinar from November 2022 from DISRUPTIVE LEADERS.

We look at what it takes to be a leader in today’s disrupted world, share our unique EACH framework (Employees as Adults, Consumers and Human beings), and give you lots of practical ideas and tips to help you increase productivity, engagement and innovation in your team.

DISRUPTIVE LEADERS is a live online platform giving people managers a wide range of practical tools to help them lead their teams brilliantly! 

It works perfectly with the DISRUPTIVE HR CLUB


Content is updated weekly with NEW toolkits, videos and tips, plus a rolling schedule of live training webinars.

When we in HR want to achieve a change in behaviour, we tend to resort to a training programme as the way to help deliver it. I’ve done it countless times … Let’s say we wanted to deliver a change in leadership behaviour? I’d put on a day’s training around the skills required. This would usually involve designing the programme, finding an expert to deliver the content, co-ordinating peoples’ diaries and then counting the ‘no-shows’ on the day. I’d probably even throw in a bit of ‘making it mandatory’ just to make sure I’d got to everyone.

Now there are clearly some issues with this. Aside from the time it takes to get the training put on and the time taken from busy people, we know that the human brain will forget 80% of what’s it learned on the programme within 30 days – not because the attendees are stupid, but just because that’s how the human brain works.

We also know that if the people who’ve been trained don’t put their new skill into practice soon after, and don’t have the opportunity to practice it over a few weeks, it’s unlikely to stick.

An alternative you can use to influence behaviour is to use so-called ‘nudges’. Now in the purest sense, a nudge is about influencing the choices people make at the point where they are about to make them, as opposed to trying to push people into doing things using threats or regulations. One of the most famous examples of an effective nudge was used in the men’s urinals at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport. Instead of exhorting users to aim into the urinal properly, they etched an image of a housefly onto the urinals in the area they wanted them to aim! Very simple and very effective.

We can use these nudges in HR to help influence the behaviour of our leaders and employees too – by subtlety encouraging a different choice of behaviour at the point when a choice is being made.

Let’s look at a couple of examples:

Nudges are being used a lot in approaches to Diversity and Inclusion. At Pinterest, they simply suggested that hiring managers be more aware of the amount of hires they were making from under-represented groups. Just this simple prompt or nudge just before they went into interviewing led to a more diverse group of hires.

There’s also the example from the Chief Fire Officer for East Sussex Fire Service – a woman called Dawn Whittaker. When one of her female team passes an exam or does something notable, she sends a congratulations email with a little drawing of a fire chief’s helmet in it! It’s just a nudge to subliminally tell her female staff that they are good enough to think about the top job.

Boston Consulting Group uses nudges to help prevent burn out amongst their staff. They created a macro in the company email application that causes a pop-up window to appear whenever leaders attempt to send a message after hours. The nudge appears at the exact moment leaders need a reminder that the action they’re taking may be putting extra stress onto their teams who might think they should reply to the email immediately, even though it’s late. It doesn’t block their ability to send the message. It simply offers the choice of marking as low priority or deferring the email to the next day.

And finally, Google, who use this nudge technique – or ‘Whispers’ as they call them – to help influence behaviours. They send Whisper emails to managers suggesting one small leadership skill they might want to practice – and they also send an automated nudge email to hiring managers on the Sunday night before their new hire starts. Because let’s be honest, the Sunday before they start is typically when managers actually think about what they’re going to do during onboarding! The email prompts them to introduce them to a buddy and to get a few 1-2-1’s booked in.

So instead of a laborious and costly training programme, maybe you could think about introducing nudges to help you change behaviours.  

If our organisations and our teams are going to survive and thrive in this new, disrupted world then we need a fundamentally new way of relating to our people. This video explores how leaders can do things differently using the EACH model – Employees as Adults, Consumers and Human beings

Right now, management teams all over the world are debating what they should do with the future workplace. Some, like DropBox are getting rid of offices for individual working completely. At the other end of the spectrum, some, like Goldman Sachs, seem to be denying that the last 18 months even happened and are urging everyone to get back to normal as soon as possible.

Most leaders though are taking a more progressive and rational approach and opting for a hybrid workplace. Whether that’s a 2/3 day split like at BP or even better – like O2, Mondelez, Standard Chartered – allowing for personal choice about where we want to work.

But what does this mean for managers who are trying to get the work done, keep customers and team members happy and still provide this level of individual choice? How can you make the future workplace – work?!

Got to work for all

As managers trying to juggle different – and sometimes conflicting needs and wants within a team – and still deliver – it’s tempting to look for some rule or policy that we can use to give us the answer. But the smarter leaders know that a prescriptive policy is NEVER going to cater for every possible situation. The best and really the ONLY way to resolve conflicting needs and wants is to talk it through as a team. If you treat people like grown-ups and share the dilemma – you can work through it together – through conversations. True, not everyone may get everything they want, but you’re treating them like adults and it’s more likely to be resolved amicably without applying a big one-size-fits-all approach.

Level the playing field

If you’re really going to make the future ways of working happen effectively, then it’s worth thinking about how you can create the same experience for your people, regardless of where they are based. It’s well-known that human beings tend to show bias towards the people we see more regularly and that remote workers can feel less valued as a result. One way of levelling the playing field is the approach that the company Coinbase take where they commit to there being no explicit or implicit disadvantages to working from any location and conduct all team meetings as if everyone were working remotely – including colleagues in the office who connect from their desks. Or have a think about how you reward and recognise your people and make sure that the celebrations aren’t always office based.

Retaining your culture

Managers I meet are worrying about how they can continue to retain their culture if more of their team aren’t in the office regularly – and I think this is a valid concern. What we see companies doing is being really clear on the key interactions with your team members that are best done face to face? – the so-called ‘moments that matter’

Managers at ABN Amro have identified 4 key moments that matter – being recruited, being inducted onboarded, dealing with difficult times and building social relationships. Once you’ve identified the key moments for your people that are best done face to face, then you can co-ordinate the team being together. Maybe have a think about the moments that matter in your area? Or better still, discuss and agree them with your team. Agreeing on the types of activity that play best remotely or face to face, rather than how many days a week tends to be more productive.

Leader’s checklist

And what about you as a leader? How might you need to work differently? Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to hopefully help you move to a more hybrid workplace

  1. Are my meetings always about ‘tasks’ or do I create opportunities for social interaction?
  2. Am I having enough quick check-ins and chats about career development?
  3. Am I celebrating enough as a team? How am I recognising individual team members?
  4. Am I using a range of tools such as WhatsApp or Slack to keep conversations going outside of meetings?
  5. Do I Work From Anywhere – or am I always in the office? If leaders don’t actively work away from the office then it will be seen as something that in reality is frowned upon.

But more than anything, leaders can make this work by not seeing and framing Working from home as an indulgence. If we continue to imply ‘BUT, THE REAL WORK HAPPENS IN THE OFFICE!’ we’ll be back to packed commuter trains and cubicle-working in no time at all. Offering greater choice about where and when your teams do their work is a fantastic opportunity to provide the flexibility and autonomy we crave whilst providing the social interaction and structure too.

We are seeing a wave of new trends in performance management that take less time, cost less and actually drive up performance – which was kind of why we started this whole thing, right? Oh, and they can be done as easily over Zoom as face to face. This short video talks you through them.

If you want to help your leaders and managers have better conversations to improve performance, then you might want to check out Leader Box – the new app from Disruptive HR that offers leaders and managers really simple tips and conversation starters.

It’s hard to argue that investing in for our employees’ health and wellbeing is anything other than a good thing. And I’m not going to. Argue I mean. But I do think we should question the corporate approach to health and wellbeing and ask whether the things we’re doing are really helping? Or are they unnecessary investments that delude us into thinking that the health and wellbeing box can be ticked? We should question whether our healthy snacks and instructive posters are addressing the real barriers to feeling well. Or whether they are yet another example of the parental relationships we foster in most organisations? Should we be the caring parent and provide the right kinds of food, exhortations and education? Or should we look at the things we do that create/add to the stress in the first place and try and reduce those?

Health and wellbeing at work is now a massive industry. It currently stands at $53 billion and is set to grow to $97 billion by 2027. That’s a lot of yoga classes and Fitbits.

Most of our health and wellbeing support falls into one of the following:

  1. Giving health education and instructions such as ‘take a break from your screen’, timely pop-ups reminding employees to ‘now drink some water’ – or my personal favourite that I saw recently – advising women to ‘practice your pelvic lifts’ via a poster on the back of the ladies’ loo door!
  2. Protecting employees from stress by putting in place certain restrictions such as the French ‘right to disconnect’ law, banning email sending after certain hours or Volkswagen, who blocked emails after hours.
  3. Gifts and perks such as gym membership, a back massage at your desk, or fresh fruit.
  4. Training for both managers and employees in how to spot signs of mental health problems and
  5. Providing professional help to tackle these issues such as Employee Assistance Programmes.

Our health and wellbeing initiatives tend to be patronising

I’m not suggesting for one minute that these things are bad, nor do they come from anywhere other than positive intent. However, as with many employment initiatives, they can tend towards being patronising and fail to address the real causes of poor health and wellbeing.

Instead of acting like a caring parent, who knows what’s good for our people and gives out remedies, it would be great to see organisations taking a different approach. We should instead be tackling the causes of stress and creating environments where our people feel comfortable about owning their own health and wellbeing, in the knowledge they will be supported.

In my view, any effective approach to health and wellbeing should include:

A determination to move the relationship with our employees to one of trust.

Rather than providing tons of rules on flexible working, adopt the Swiss Re approach where they tell their people, ‘own the way you work’. This tells their people that they are expected to know when, where and how they work best and that their needs will be accommodated. Instead of loads of policies, encourage your people to #DoTheRightThing as they did at Transport For London during the pandemic. When we feel trusted to do the right thing, we feel more energised and engaged.

As adults we know what’s best for our own health and wellbeing too. I definitely eat more chocolate than I should, but is that because I don’t know that it’s bad for me – or because, even though I know the dietary dangers, I choose to do it anyway? What I need from my employer is not necessarily advice or training or incentives to be healthy. What would be helpful is knowing that I am trusted to work in ways and at times that I can balance effectively with the other demands in my life. And that if I need time off or to take my foot off the gas, that I will be supported. Of course, it’s great to be given healthy perks, but I question whether they can transform my health and wellbeing.

Line managers seeking to understand our employees as individuals and accommodating their needs.

Managers holding frequent check-ins, asking the right questions, relentless listening – should be at the heart of any wellbeing plan. Whether it be Entry Interviews or Stay Interviews like they do at Webroot and LinkedIn respectively, to try and understand from the outset, how they can create the best working environment for each individual. Or ensuring that reward and recognition is based on what is valued by that employee like they do at Baptist Healthcare. Or knowing how best to support individual needs like during onboarding like they do at Wipro. The line managers who can adapt their style to accommodate the needs and wants of each of their team members will create a more supportive and fulfilling work environment. When we talk about a duty of care to our employees, that’s about treating them decently, not just looking after them when things have turned to s**t!

Creating a Feeling of Belonging

70 separate studies show that feeling socially accepted is a key factor in helping our new hires be successful. And that sense that you belong, that you are accepted for who you are, that you matter, that your ideas and views are wanted and that you are valued, become even more important as time goes by. So whether it’s putting in place buddy systems like they do at Buffer, giving employees their own intranet page to let colleagues know who they are as a human being, not just their role description and CV, as they do at AirBnB, moving to peer to peer rewards as they do at South West Airlines, creating a sense of belonging should be key to our health and wellbeing plans.

HR as mediator rather than grievance process administrator

If we think about the grievances we’ve had to deal with in HR, or the people who go off sick with stress, we can often relate the origins to the breakdown of personal relationships at work. An individual starts to feel excluded, not valued and the options available to them to try and resolve this are nearly always procedural. In my experience individuals haven’t necessarily wanted to take the nuclear option of a grievance but just wanted things to change. Maybe we should change our focus from the effective implementation of a grievance procedure or an EAP, to early intervention when relationships start to sour? HR as mediator rather than process administrator.

Remove the hassle

Finally, our health and wellbeing plans ought to focus not just on what we do for our people – but what we take away. If we can reduce those daily frustrations, those small irritations and barriers to people just getting their work done, wouldn’t that at least help with people feeling less stressed out? One of the benefits of the current crisis is that it has given us clarity about what actually matters, and we have been able to cut through the red tape and unnecessary bureaucracy that we’ve been inflicting on our people for decades. So, maybe now’s the time to follow Pepsico’s ‘Process Shredder’ or TD Bank’s ‘Kill a Stupid Bank Rule’ example to make our people’s lives a bit easier. Or replace that cumbersome in-company tech with intuitive, easy to use options like WhatsApp or Workplace by Facebook. Or allow employees to buy the tech that works for them with an allowance like they did at Google.

As I mentioned at the start, I don’t want to dismiss the well-intentioned efforts of typical health and wellbeing approaches. But if we focused more on the causes of stress – the lack of trust, the managers who lack empathy, the things that make us feel excluded and the daily hassles and frustrations, maybe we wouldn’t need to spend all of that $53 billion on things that try and fix the problem?

At Disruptive HR we’re often told that taking an innovative approach to people practices is not possible when you’re working with managers from sectors which tend to be more rule or process based. So, new approaches to HR are fine for say, marketing or media, but not for engineering, accountancy or pharmaceuticals. The argument is along the lines that, when it comes to HR:

And any deviation from this will be met by huge resistance from managers within these sectors.

I would like to suggest that, whilst it’s not easy to remove the clunky process and stifling rules from HR in these sectors, it is definitely possible. I believe that managers are completely capable of treating their people in a different style than their corporate DNA dictates. For brevity, I’ll use ‘engineers’ as a catch-all to describe any manager in one of these high-process, rule-bound fields.

Engineers are humans too

Whilst we often picture engineers as being devoid of all spontaneity, highly introverted and process-obsessed (and I have worked with a few like that!), this is clearly not the case across the board. Moreover, the human brain is sophisticated enough to use and apply different mindsets in different contexts. Engineers cry at sad films. Engineers mess about with their mates. Engineers show tenderness and affection towards their children. So why do we believe that the only people approach they are capable of is following a step by step process to its conclusion?

They are smart enough to understand that, whilst a rigorous adherence to a detailed process might be hugely valuable to an engineering outcome, when it comes to working with people, something different is needed. It would be a bit scary if an engineer working on a product just decided to go with the flow! But they are totally capable of working out the difference between a product and a human being and recognising that the latter won’t necessarily respond to a standardised and systemic approach.

Clever people are as emotional about change as everyone else. They just disguise it better!

Trying to convince really clever people, such as engineers, to change their approach to people management can of course be tricky. Clever people have the same emotional rejection of uncomfortable change as everyone else, but they can be really good at disguising their reactions as  an intellectual rationale. So, we in HR spend ages addressing their objections on this intellectual level. We provide more data, we have loads of debates, putting together ever more elaborate counter-rationales – all to no avail. Because, in reality, they just don’t like the idea of having to do things differently!

Engineers can delight in their intellectual prowess – but we in HR need to recognise when it’s a genuine objection to the changes proposed and when we’re just being fooled. As the HRD of the BBC I was regularly interacting with leaders with a higher than average IQ. Nowhere else have I had to look up the meaning of words so regularly! In no other job have I sat there like an idiot whilst my colleagues made jokes in Latin! But whilst being awash with Oxbridge alumni may produce great debate, it doesn’t necessarily get things done. We should make sure that we are identifying the real reasons for resisting change. Is it because they have spotted a genuine flaw in our arguments or, are they just not comfortable with trying something new? I think it’s often the latter and that’s what we should be helping them with. Not providing additional intellectual responses.

A people process is usually less satisfactory than an engineering one

Unfortunately, in HR we have often tried to appeal to our engineers’ comfort with process by giving them more people process than they know what to do with. We’ve become adept at providing process solutions to human challenges. You want to improve human performance? Here’s a performance management system. You want a pipeline of talent? Here’s an Annual Talent Review supported by a 9 Box Grid. You want engaged employees? Here’s an Annual Engagement Survey supported by a cascade action plan for every team. You want people to feel rewarded and recognised for their efforts? Here’s a complicated bonus system.

It’s not difficult to see why we’ve taken the process route. It’s often easier to introduce a one-size fits all process that is monitorable, scalable, and more cost effective to implement. And we think that if we offer our managers a process, then they will respond more favourably because they ‘get process’. But engineers will only use processes that actually make the product better. They will weed out ineffective processes because they care about doing a great job. When we provide them with processes that don’t result in better outcomes, they might comply, but they will only be going through the motions.

Our lack of faith in line managers to do the right thing by their people results in the creation of processes that try to compensate for them. Sadly, if we have line managers who have zero interest in developing their people, there is no process that will change the outcome. We just feel better that we can point to our completion rate of performance reviews, or the fact that we have everyone in one of nine boxes. We rarely question whether we have actually had an impact on human behaviour in terms of performance or personal growth.

We need to stop being the people process experts and start being the experts on how human beings think, feel, behave, communicate with one another, learn, are intrinsically motivated, etc. We need to build our capability and our credibility on how to create the conditions in our organisations where people can become more creative, more productive, more collaborative, more agile. Being the architects of these conditions won’t come from the implementation of universal processes but through a more robust understanding of WHY people behave in certain ways and HOW you can help them to shift their established behaviour.

So, yes it can be difficult to get engineering leaders, or managers in financial services or heads of department in pharma to change how they lead. But it is difficult whatever the sector. These leaders are not pre-determined to lead by process by virtue of their profession. It is totally feasible to help them change and become more human-centred and better coaches. But not by giving them another process.

Many of our traditional views on how to manage talent are out of step with a disrupted and fast-moving world. We need a fresh perspective on what great talent management looks like. Here are five things that great talent leaders don’t do, that we might have admired in the past.

1. They don’t hold onto their best people

Running a talent review with senior leaders can be so painful. Their desire to hang onto their best talent rather than see them move to another Division is palpably obvious. I’ve heard them complaining that “it’s not quite the right time” or worse still, even talking down their team member’s ability to make them less desirable to their colleagues. It’s understandable given the way they are themselves are rewarded and recognised but also short-sighted. Leaders who proactively encourage their best employees to move across divisional lines are not only doing the company a favour, they become recognised as net exporters of talent and so will find being a magnet for future talent easier.

Now clearly, if your team are wanting to abandon you because you’re a nightmare to work for, then that’s not a good sign. But if you’ve created a culture where it’s ok, or even desirable for your people to express their ambition and acknowledge that they’re interested in opportunities outside the team, then good for you. The consumer research organisation Nielsen has won recognition for its “Ready to Rotate” initiative whereby all staff were encouraged to flag their interest in new roles or stretch projects. Good people are likely to move on if they’re not growing, so encouraging your people to leave to enable that growth may keep them in the company, even if they’re not in your team.

Do you make sure your team know you want them to show interest in other roles outside of the team – that it’s not a betrayal, but something you welcome?

2. They don’t have a problem with talent going outside the company

I’ve seen leaders dragged across hot coals for this by CEO’s. But the potential damage really depends on how you handle it. Some leaders take this defection as a personal insult and make the exit as uncomfortable as possible. One of my previous bosses refused to speak to me for six weeks after I resigned! LinkedIn took a different approach. They invited ex-employees, who’d gone on to great new roles, to come back and share how their career had progressed with current LinkedIn employees. They celebrated the fact that, as a result of their time at LinkedIn, they’d accelerated their career. The US healthcare company DaVita make a conscious effort to keep in touch with ex-employees, with a view to re-hiring them at some stage. In fact, around 15% of their “new hires” have worked there before. Given that many of us are likely to move roles within our sector, great leaders can turn losing talent to a competitor into a positive.

How do you react when your great people leave you? Do you make it a positive experience and keep the door open for a return?

3. They don’t see their team as a ‘family’

We have a tendency to value “parental leaders”. Their motives are often admirable. They want to protect their people from an uncertain world, keep them safe, not upset them and above all, retain them in role and within the team. I have worked in some very parental cultures and I’m convinced that this ‘kindness’ is damaging for our people. Being over-protective means that we prevent our people from developing their ability to use their judgement and the resourcefulness that’s essential for succeeding in a disrupted world. The pace of change means that leaders cannot possibly map out career-path certainty for their staff. By retaining them in role for so long that they weaken their ability to secure stretching employment elsewhere is surely abdicating our responsibility as leaders? Great talent leaders avoid the parenting and instead of creating a ‘family’ with themselves at the head, they work together with their people as adults. In talent terms, this requires leaders to make an honest appraisal about which roles in their team may need to be refreshed within say, 12 months. It means putting career management responsibilities into the hands of the employees themselves. It means encouraging their people to become increasingly employable and attractive to the outside world and avoiding any misguided (and occasionally selfish) temptation to let them stay in role for too long. 

Are you parenting your people or are you treating them as adults?

4. They neglect their high-potentials

Ok, so not ‘neglect’ exactly, but our almost obsessive fixation on focusing on the needs and ambitions of the elite is out of touch with today’s world. The fact that 73% of high-potential programmes show no ROI hasn’t stopped them being implemented. The issues with placing our leadership bets on a favoured few are two-fold. Firstly, as a leader, you are going to struggle to identify high potential with any real accuracy. It’s not because you’re stupid, it’s just that we suffer from “rater bias” and so our assessment of who’s going to be great in the future and who isn’t, is always going to be somewhat flawed. Secondly, potential is always contextual and we have an increasingly limited understanding of what will be required in the future. No matter how good the instructions on the 9-box grid that your HR partner gives you, trying to identify and invest in a small group of people who will be the next generation of leaders is a fairly futile exercise. Great talent leaders of the future will steer clear of hi-po programmes and will instead think about how they create environments where the majority of their people can stretch, can play to their strengths and take advantage of opportunity.

Do you focus your talent efforts on the many or the few?

5. They don’t find their successors from within their team

Once seen as admirable, the concept of only recruiting from a narrow internal pool feels increasingly risky for today’s leader. When I was involved in creating leadership succession plans, the interjection of an external was either seen as a failing of the leader to produce an heir, or the need for a ‘benchmark’ candidate to make sure the internal nominee was up to scratch. But now, we would have to question the desirability of any succession plan with only current team members on it. With increasingly flat leadership structures, it is often really tough for the next tier to get the experience they need to take the top job. Only drawing from the names you know and trust results in a lack of diversity and ignores a wealth of talent with fresh perspectives. Of course it’s important to grow your own, but equally, great leaders of tomorrow will take a broader view of potential successors and will build a community of future talent that extends beyond the borders of their team and their company.

How are you fostering relationships with potential successors outside of your immediate team and outside of your company?

We need to cast off some of our misconceptions of what a great talent leader is and does. We need to let go of the idea that good leaders should be judged by how many people they retain and how long people stay with them. Retention and length of tenure will not necessarily equip our organisations for the future and the better leaders will be brave enough to acknowledge it.

If you want to find out more about how to manage talent in new ways, then you might be interested in the next Disruptive HR live training session on the 10th December 2020. Filled with practical ideas for how to do things differently. Find out more here.

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.

(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:

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:

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:

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:

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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In HR we’ve been banging on about the importance of leadership communications for decades. But pre-crisis, much of that communication was still quite sterile – logical and informative – but without the humanity and empathy to make it meaningful. One of the upsides of the current crisis has been a shift in the way that leaders are communicating with their teams. Now great leaders were already doing it well – but over the last few months we have seen and heard other leaders who were previously resistant, or who had struggled, now seemingly doing it automatically, instinctively.

When we think about returning to normal, it is vital that we don’t lose some of these new leadership communication trends. As you articulate and create the ‘better normal’ for your organisation, I believe there are four key leadership communication trends that we want to take forward. I want to take you through each of these, with examples of how leaders have been demonstrating them through the crisis.


Remember how we agonised about how to transform our intellectual, overly formal, remote and analytical leaders into warm human beings who showed they cared? Despite the empathy training modules that they seemed to pass through untouched, our leaders appear to have somehow suddenly got it!

I hear regular stories from HR about how the crisis has turned our slightly robotic leaders into more human and empathetic ones, 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, rather than ticking it off their list before diving into task allocation. 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.

At Expedia, they have really encouraged their leaders to share their experiences of working from home and say this has helped encourage much more human leadership comms such as a ‘senior executive who home-schools five kids who blogged about his experience and has become a wonderful resource for really honest interactions.’ They even have a specific Slack channel that celebrates through photos, when their pets invade their video conference!

Amy Brand from Swiss Re told me on our recent podcast interview that their leaders have always had incredibly high IQ, but that now their EQ is much more evident and is going down really well with their people.

Of course, not every leadership communication right now is about the joys of working from home. Many companies are having to give their people really bad news around job losses. Sustaining that empathy and compassion into this kind of comms is even more important. Back in the financial crisis of 2008, Garry Ridge the CEO of the company WD-40, took an approach that we can usefully adopt for all of our difficult leadership comms. He put in place a policy of “No lying, no faking, no hiding conversations.” This, amongst other aspects of strong leadership led to them not only getting through the crisis, but reporting its best financials in its fifty-seven-year history.

And finally we can learn a lot from the style and approach taken by Airbnb CEOBrian Chesky in his recent letter to employees announcing redundancy. It’s worth reading the letter in full, but here are a couple of paragraphs:

Our mission is not merely about travel. When we started Airbnb, our original tagline was, “Travel like a human.” The human part was always more important than the travel part. What we are about is belonging, and at the center of belonging is love. 

I am truly sorry. Please know this is not your fault. The world will never stop seeking the qualities and talents that you brought to Airbnb…that helped make Airbnb. I want to thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for sharing them with us.’

Powerful and heartfelt. Great leadership communications.


When we think about leadership comms, we tend to think about how we will tell people stuff, we think about broadcasting our messages, but of course, listening has always been one of the strongest assets of our best leaders. And active listening, where we don’t just take it in, but we then do something about it. During the crisis, Telefonica wanted listening and taking action to be at the forefront of their communications. Specifically, they wanted to understand:

At the outset of the crisis Telefonica launched its first ever pulse survey, meaning they were able to listen frequently – and more importantly, act fast on the information. As a result of the pulse surveys they responded quickly to what they were being told, including:

As their Head of Engagement, Sergio De La Calle Asensio says,

“In the last few years, we’ve switched from thinking about a one-size-fits-all engagement program, to thinking about more personalized employee experience. This crisis has not only validated that decision. It’s made it clear we actually need to be listening more in order to take fast, meaningful actions to better serve employees.”

Little and often

The usual cadence of leadership comms – typically once a month or quarter – has been replaced with ‘little and often’. A whacking 63% of employees want to hear from their leaders daily during the crisis according to the PR giant Edelman. And hopefully this more frequent, light touch trend won’t disappear once we get back to normal. At DentaQuest, they say they are communicating more, but only the important things, not ‘everything and the kitchen sink’. They send a bite-sized daily email that contains the key pieces of information employees need each day. It’s short, relevant, and valuable because it makes it easy for everyone to stay up-to-date and on the same page. While at Legacy Global Sports, they’re doing less of the big set communications pieces with more emphasis on one-on-one interactions. For the up-to-date information employees may need, they put it all in one place on a COVID-19 page online that’s updated regularly and, in the meantime, they’re focusing on more personal communications. Reward Gateway wanted to focus on frequent and regular comms to their people but to make it a bit more interesting, so they developed a themed calendar, which was focused on Mission Monday, Tech Tuesday, Wow Wednesday, Thank You Thursday and Feel Good Friday. Reward Gateway have also adapted their recognition methods to ensure that the ‘little and often’ philosophy extends into the way they celebrate and reward their people. They encouraged their employees to send out lots of WFH eCards to their colleagues – equating to nearly 2,000 moments of recognition during the crisis.


And finally, the BIG ONE; leaders showing that they trust their people – to behave well, use their judgement and do the right thing. With the absence of physical supervision, even the most die-hard of presenteeism leaders have had to trust their people during lockdown. And unsurprisingly, productivity hasn’t suffered and in many cases, morale has actually gone up!

I love the approach taken by Sprinklr’s CEO/Founder Ragy Thomas when he told his employees recently, “We have one, integrated life. Your children are a part of it. Your dog is a part of it. Your friends are a part of it. I want you to give yourself permission to be you. If you need to take care of your child, do it. If you need to walk your dog, do it. Give yourself permission to take the artificial boundary of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. away.”

During the crisis, we have witnessed what can happen when people are trusted to use their judgement or to behave like decent human beings. We’ve seen greater creativity, greater capacity to achieve much with very little, their ability to not just cope with change but to embrace it and make it work for them.

It would be tragic if the autonomy and the freedom to work in ways that suit us and enable us to perform at our best was lost when leaders return to the new normal. A better normal would be for leaders to continue to communicate that trust in their people.

So, let’s not lose the four key trends in leadership comms that we’ve seen during the crisis. Let’s ensure that whatever better normal you’re creating in your organisation has at its heart leadership communications that is human, done frequently and in bite-sized chunks, is based around listening and taking action quickly and is all designed to make your people that they are trusted.

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