Leading Right Now – Part 2 People

October 1, 2020

Perhaps stating the obvious, face-to-face working is different from remote working and many leaders have had to transition rapidly. They have found that remote management of their teams presents a whole range of new challenges that may require a different skill set. For the most part, they’ve had no training for this new scenario. Consequently, some leaders may be finding their roles to be more difficult than before and a potential knock-on is that junior team members lives have become more stressful as they struggle to adapt.

  • Start by celebrating what has been achieved – in many instances, the magnitude of change and the speed at which achievements were realised over the last few months would have been unthinkable last year, so it’s worth reflecting on that and celebrating those wins.
  • How have you performed on your Values? – How have things played out across the firm when reality is cross-checked against your stated Values? Did the firm perform well and did we live our Values or were there gaps in behaviours? Perhaps some firms witnessed their stated values not aligning with the actual values that played out, and that gap has given cause for pause. Some individual, undesirable behaviours may have bubbled up under the more stressful conditions – these behaviours may have been overlooked in the past – but many behaviours have been amplified during the pandemic and now need to be addressed. Whatever the result, it would be worthwhile spending time considering if some values should be re-set, if unwritten values, beliefs, or widespread assumptions should be codified, or if elements of the culture need to be tweaked or changed. The next step is then to explicitly reset what needs to be changed by engaging with key stakeholders. People are expecting leaders to be transparent and reasonable – a misalignment on a firm’s stated values vs. actual behaviours can be very damaging.
  • A trust deficit? – coinciding with some people now experiencing WFH fatigue, doubts can more easily arise in the remote setting, and trust takes more work to maintain. Unreasonable expectations of “always being on” can creep in and cross already blurred lines around work-home balance. Compromised associates may be struggling to perform at pre-Covid levels which can lead to a drop in levels of engagement and motivation, resulting in a further blow to further productivity.
  • Now would be an opportune time to investigate further and find out more about who is struggling and who would benefit from additional support. It makes sense that focussed encouragement and connection – more check-in and less check-up – is likely to result in improved wellbeing and performance, especially as we are now looking at longer-term WFH scenarios. It would also be timely to think about what additional support, training or coaching may be needed by firm leaders as they develop new skills needed to manage remote teams and the day-to-day WFH people challenges.
  • Leadership redefined – for many, the pandemic has redefined the view of which leadership qualities and traits are now valued. Many have moved from the formal style of command and control, to a more immediate, accessible and informal style. It then follows that firms may wish to redefine what they want their leaders to look like, what leadership activities need to done differently, how learnings can be applied, what actions can be taken to reinforce these new attributes, what characteristics will be valued and rewarded going forward, and how will leaders model new behaviours so ensure they become embedded in new systems.
  • Start with self – right now, people are expecting more from their leaders. How leaders show up to work each day – the qualities they exhibit and the actions they take – impacts the morale and engagement across the firm. Pre-Covid, it was about setting strategy, dealing with business issues, culture and taking people decisions. Now, it’s more likely to be about maintaining morale in the face of great uncertainty. It stands to reason that leaders will need to consider how they adapt their leadership style by displaying more humanity and empathy, by truly listening, relating and connecting, all of which can be inspirational qualities. Done well, with transparency and authenticity, this approach offers a great opportunity to strengthen bonds, build loyalty and trust, and forge a stronger, more motivated and unified firm. Executive teams can embed this shift in style by asking as part of their daily meetings “Is there someone who needs me to reach out to them?” – perhaps they’ve done a great job or worse, they are struggling. Encouragement from a leader is a powerful thing.
  • Leaders now have a moment in time for introspection – in some ways, the pandemic has created more solitude, time and space that could seen as a unique opportunity for leaders to take a pause. Introspecting on personal style, reflecting on how effective you’ve been at helping others to deliver value and give their best performance, thinking about the best way to fine-tune your responses could produce profound implications or improvements for the firm overall. Conduct a self-audit and decide if you need a leadership skills update – for instance, asking questions around “if I and my leadership team are stewards of the firm, then what does my firm and our people need now? Am I exhibiting calm and thoughtfulness, staying balanced, and doing enough to dispel anxiety? Am I displaying the right amount of optimism or am I projecting doom and gloom? Am I adapting my leadership style rapidly enough? Am I leading with purpose and living our values? Am I listening more and telling less? Am I doing enough critical thinking, challenging people’s assumptions and helping them to embrace change?  Am I constantly scanning horizons, looking for ways to navigate the waves and catch the winds? What am I learning that’s new about our people and our clients, and how can I apply that knowledge?”
  • Become your firm’s super coach – more emphasis on a leader’s coaching skills will be required. How do you have better coaching conversations that engage, empower and energise and prepare people for change, that build better relationships and deepen trust, that produce insights that ignite innovation to drive competitive advantage. Improved coaching conversations inspire confidence and a greater willingness to adapt to change.
  • Being the “rock of the firm” is not easy – leaders too are human and vulnerable and it’s worth acknowledging that leaders are now expected to be making decisions that no-one has ever trained for. If a leader is feeling down, then they are less likely to access some of their standout leadership qualities. Get good at self-assessment, know what you’re good at, and turn to those competencies to help you cope on the bad days. Make sure emerging leaders around you understand this too. Being self-aware and taking care of self are now of vital importance.
  • Be intentional about how you come to work each day – if you want to display or strengthen certain leadership qualities, then reflect on that at the start of each day. Make a conscious choice about how you want to be and then write it down to help keep it top of mind; for instance, if you want to be more collaborative, genuine, informal, generous, or a better listener. Ask others to help keep you accountable. The evidence suggests that leaders who can adapt their leadership style to better suit the moment see improvements in both morale and engagement scores.
  • Adapt and re-skill – we’ve now seen some businesses adapt and re-skill rapidly. Think of the breweries now making hand sanitisers and doctors delivering a number of services through telehealth platforms. Looking forward to what new skills will be required in the current and post-pandemic world will be important as firms grapple with the speed and magnitude of change. How firms set themselves apart through their reskilling programmes will become a strategic plank to help leverage and retain their talent.
  • Manage burnout – a common theme to emerge from the pandemic is that people are reluctant to take their vacation leave. No-one wants to spend a holiday at home. And the workday timeline is becoming blurred for many as work-home live merges into one; many are reporting working longer hours. However, as WFH is likely to be in place for quite some time yet, it is not sustainable or desirable for people to take no time off for a year or more. Leaders can set the tone by mandating that vacation days must be taken.  
  • Foster resilience in people – much has been written about resilience (see Part 1 of this Insight series – Organisation). Part of a leader’s role is to promote and encourage resilient behaviours in people. Anxiety and uncertainty are creating fragility in some but systems that create and maintain resilience in people is not often designed for or managed. If resilient people still manage to function and cope when under stress, recover and learn over time, and then go on to thrive in very changed and unpredictable circumstances, then perhaps firm leaders need to apply greater focus to resilience building programmes. To foster resilience, leaders should be thinking about how to help their people prepare for unknown, changeable, unpredictable, and improbable events, how to embrace disruption and complexity, how to embed and value true diversity ie hiring people from different backgrounds and with different skills, perspectives and ways of thinking, how to promote more forward, adaptable and agile thinking, how to sponsor and uphold true collaboration and how to accept that change is now the default setting.
  • Does your HR team need additional support? – HR teams are under a great deal of pressure at the moment, struggling with the many day-to-day people issues that have arisen from the pandemic. Going forward, they will also need to think about a newly shaped, less predictable and highly complex workplace. As the HR function continues to grow in strategic importance, firms should also be anticipating what the HR roles of the future will look like, particularly in relation to how technology is applied to attracting, managing and retaining their talent. HR teams may require additional support and guidance from their firm’s leadership team to help them and the firm steer through what will be a very different people landscape in the future.

To move forward, we suggest that firms start by ensuring senior leaders model the desired behaviours, particularly around autonomy, trust and communication. Firms will also need to identify ways to provide practical and moral support for everyone who is WFH including aspects such as equipment, access to health, safety and well-being resources, variances to leave policies, tips and training on remote working technologies and moving to online delivery models for development programmes. Coaching partners around issues of trust, communication and the benefits of more empathetic and comprehensive ways to check-in when they don’t have direct line of sight, may assist partners who are managing remote teams.  Supporting partners to identify and manage remote-working induced burnout would also be beneficial. Many of these issues have only arisen since the pandemic so it is important for leaders to think about how they may need to approach this differently.

We can expect profound change to continue and to transform every industry, everywhere, and professional services will not be immune – more complexity, more ambiguity and more choices. Firms of the future will need to be innovative and fast-thinking to stay ahead.

We would be delighted to hear your thoughts and continue the dialogue with you. We hope you’ve found this Insight to be constructive and thought-provoking. We share comments and ideas of a general nature, with the aim of helping firms contend with current challenges. As such, the content above is unlikely to be complete and comprehensive enough for a firm to re-imagine the future. Rather, it may be a beginning or a conversation starter, as each firm is different and the challenges each face are unique. If you would like to continue the conversation, then please connect with us for a confidential conversation at click here.

Jennifer Milford


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