The pandemic has clearly been a test for businesses and their leadership—unlike any they have ever faced. Leadership around the world has quickly pivoted, from the abrupt dislocation of employees, the change in consumer behaviour, the disruption in supply chains, and even the evolution of business performance. How has leadership changed to adapt for the future as the world transitions to yet another semi-permanent state of normal?
COVID-19 is a health crisis of epic magnitude, forcing leaders to undergo significant restructuring in organizations amidst managing corporate principles, values, and stakeholder responsibilities. As we have seen through the lens of leaders holding public office, some have been defined by what they have done in the handling of the COVID-19 response and some have been defined by it. Similarly, corporate leaders will be defined during this period and there is ample opportunity to create an even stronger, more purpose-driven organization.
Confronting this unique moment, many CEOs have shifted how they lead in advantageous and ingenious ways. For many others, however, it has been a time of confusion, paranoia, paralysis, and rash decision-making. Certainly, over the last two quarters, we have witnessed a few industry sectors adapt under the circumstances (life sciences, biotech, technology, natural food products, and health and fitness to name a few) and the business community has become stronger at planning for and mitigating against risk in the face of a crisis. The changes may have been born out of necessity, but they have great potential beyond this time.
Leadership Beyond the Virus
At this critical juncture, everyone looks to their leader. There is an opportunity to elevate the principle of a ‘to be’ list to the same level as the ‘to do’ list in measuring performance. Without question, this year will test not only the leadership acumen of senior management, but also the ability of organizations to operate through ambiguity. There is an urgent need to balance empathy with business continuity and it is prudent that we harness the ability to rethink what “performance” means in a post-coronavirus world, a period many will begin to refer to as “The Great Reset.”
During the pandemic, many organizations have accomplished what had previously been thought impossible. Management around the world are recognizing that the barriers to boldness and speed are less about technical limits and more about a limited mindset toward what is possible, what people are willing to do, the degree to which implicit or explicit policies can be challenged, and bureaucratic chains of command.
Management has the autonomy to decide whether to continue leading in these new ways, and in doing so, seize a once-in-a-generation opportunity to consciously evolve the very nature and impact of their individual role, whether they are the CEO or in any leadership position. Indeed, part of the role of management is to help continue to calibrate and optimize, deciding the extent and degree of change needed. Management must have a thesis of transformation that works in their company context. A good CEO is always scanning for signals and helping the organization deliver fine-tuned responses. A great CEO will see that this moment is a unique opportunity for self-calibration, with profound implications for the organization.
I have started to put these insights into operation by being explicit about what is on my “to do” and “to be” lists. I have never routinely and purposefully given enough thought to be intentional about how I want to show up every day. As a result, I have added a ‘to be’ list to my repertoire. Last week for example, I wanted to be engaged, collaborative, and genuine. Choosing how one wants “to be” will yield concrete results throughout the organization. By reflecting on the following questions, CEOs can use this moment as an opportunity to gauge how they show up every day:
- What qualities am I bringing today that I should continue to bring into the future?
- Going forward, is there an opportunity for me to manage a “to be” list with the same rigor as my “to-do” list?
- How, practically, should I hold myself accountable? How can I ensure that others will help hold me accountable?
In addition, over the last quarters, most organizations have spent a great deal of energy managing safety, containment, continuity, and contingency planning – and rightfully so, as handling the crisis and its ramifications is the main priority for every organization right now. In every meeting I have participated in over the last six months, it has reminded me that this is a time for calm and sensible leadership. Almost every meeting has ended with not only a sense of hope, but also measurable objectives, as setting realistic expectations has been a critical factor in this time of uncertainty. When there is fear, it is the job of a leader to demonstrate compassion, set direction, and inspire focus. Organizations need to show empathy, build trust with employees and customers and, above all, be as collectively united as possible.
When the non-essential workforce resumed, it looked very different and it will continue to evolve as we approach the end of the year, morphing along with each piece of new information we receive about COVID-19. Although the current operating plan may have shifted from the original forecast at the beginning of 2020, it is impossible to succeed in The Great Reset without thinking about and planning for a revised forecast in many different variations. This is the one solid thing we have been able to hold onto this year – that things will constantly change, and we need to be flexible enough to shift with and learn to exist alongside this virus.
In dealing with this crisis, organizations need to think differently about performance and target-setting than in the past few “business as usual” years. The focus right now is on preservation, taking market share, and remaining nimble.
Acting as one team, in a fight for survival, will be a better approach than encouraging employees to carry on alone. The weight assigned to individual objectives should give way to collective, shorter-term team-based targets, the notion being that the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.
Communicative, action-oriented leadership is necessary during this period. During a crisis, leaders must show unyielding empathy and commitment to their team. People need to know that even though the leader is employed to manage and run a business, he or she is a human being, someone who cares for them and understands what they are going through. The leader must lead from the front, exhibiting the values and behaviors they expect from the team.
Both management and the organization’s operating models have been challenged enough to be “reset”, perhaps more than in any time in any generation. There is an opportunity to reset how work gets done in ways that make it more efficient and effective, free of the burden of historical norms. As CEOs begin to seize the unique opportunity at hand to recalibrate their personal, team, and company operating models, they should reflect on the following questions:
- How have we worked differently to enable the impossible to happen during the pandemic, including our decision-making, processes, resource allocation, communication, and location?
- What learnings and new experiences should we bring forward into the organization for the future?
- How will this change my day-to-day in my role in the company?
Reaffirming and Building Corporate Purpose
Since the advent of the popular term “corporate responsibility”, CEOs and management teams around the world have begun to embrace the idea that their companies’ obligations to shareholders should not come at the expense of other stakeholders—that is, employees, customers, community, suppliers, and society. The most public affirmation of the idea came just last summer, when 181 CEOs committed to the idea by signing onto the US Business Roundtable’s “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation.” The pandemic has brought this issue to the forefront in powerful ways, prompting many CEOs to gut check their beliefs and take action accordingly.
There is no doubt that this is an opportunity to re-catalyze a purpose-driven organization and re-establish leadership accountability, not a mission that focuses largely on how a business will generate economic value, which appears to be a given goal and likely on every current meeting agenda. Focusing on the organization’s higher purpose, beyond economics, will be the goal that defines how an organization is going to create long-term gains for shareholders and will reflect something more aspirational.
CEOs are being called upon to make decisions they have never been trained for. Few have any expertise on the general health of their employees, yet they are asked to decide when it is safe to return to the office. Tough decisions with profound human consequences are confronting CEOs every day. This, too, is an opportunity to redefine the ways in which an organization is making a difference, to provide a sense of meaning, and to create means to support their employees. It has been uplifting to see organizations share examples of videos, personal messages, and letters showcasing their experience during COVID-19 and the impact this time has made on their work and the well-being of the community. This is a time like no other to make those connections from within the four walls of an organization to the entire eco-system that is involved in making the organization what it is – the factory workers, teachers, doctors, truck drivers, plant operators, corporate leaders, and many others that are dependent on what an organization generates.
There is also no better time to revisit an organization’s statement of purpose. This is an opportunity for leaders to dedicate themselves to supporting that purpose and weave it into onboarding and training programs, corporate meetings, and culture-building activities. As more leaders emphasize purpose with authenticity, I am confident there will be renewed energy and in organizations where this may have been weak, The Great Reset will allow for the transformation to begin.
Often, working on what is perceived as the “soft” side of a business’s values and principles does not work very well because leaders often try to incorporate ideas into training by altering incentives or leaving it in the hands of managers to implement. It is usually the approach that is to blame, not the people. Leaders now face a choice: we can double down on that approach, on the assumption that we just need more or stricter controls to achieve the desired impact, or they can align the organization with an authentic higher purpose that intersects with a leader’s business interests, helping to guide future decision-making in the era to come.
In addition to creating a purpose-driven organization, there are some other ways to keep employees engaged and motivated:
- Rewards and reward systems may have been an important tool in the past and they may be also be an important tool during these times. One approach I have seen is to move toward two separate performance cycles for 2020. The first should emphasize stability and preservation in the short-term and once conditions return closer to normal, a second cycle should focus on driving the longer-term strategic agenda.
- During periods of economic instability, it helps if organizations can support more efficiency, organizational design models, and continue to provide flexibility for the workforce by deploying more agile operating methodologies.
- Continued training and developing hard and soft skills, so employees are ready for the rebound curve.
- Supporting and recruiting key roles and identifying incumbent future leaders/high potentials.
- Reviewing performance and reward systems, both for short-term team-based goals and improvements to overall performance-driven incentives.
There is no doubt that leadership communications and peer-networks will play a more vital role than usual, as organizations navigate through the challenges and opportunities presented by the COVID-19 outbreak. It is important that leaders remain agile and flexible during these times.
In order for leaders to leverage such interactions in the future and accelerate impact on shared challenges, they will have to continue to approach such opportunities—both formal and informal—with humility, an open mind, and a commitment to ongoing development. The benefits of doing so are more significant than one might imagine.
It is likely that different leadership styles will need to be adopted as the pandemic progresses through different stages. Organizations that come out of a crisis stronger typically will have leaders who drive change around how they operate, how they engage employees, and how flexible they are in focusing, engaging, rewarding, and retaining their people.
The Great Reset will allow organizations to revisit building corporate purpose without it presenting as an unreachable ideal; it has practical implications for an organization’s financial health and competitiveness. For the time being, an affiliative and participative style of leadership where decisions are made through consensus and based on relationships may be the best path going forward.
When we are confronted with a global challenge of this magnitude, whether we are ready for it or not, The Great Reset is here to stay and we must dig deep to adapt to the evolving circumstances. For organizations to maintain any level of sustainable success, they must learn to operate in ambiguity and constant disruption. Building culture that not only tolerates this climate, but also thrives in it will separate the winners from the losers. Now is the time to tap into that power and transform your organization.
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