Leading through uncertain times such as these has never been more important, or more testing. In just a few short months, the pandemic radically changed the way we live and work, and in ways few could have imagined. The business world had already been rapidly evolving, with new digital technology deployed weekly, and five generations in the workforce – each with different needs. Certainly executives find themselves in unchartered waters. How can leaders navigate through these difficult times while keeping their team motivated and engaged? Here are four key attributes an effective leader must have to succeed in the “new normal.”
1) Be Human
Today’s employees look to their leaders for empathetic guidance as they try to handle these unsettling times. Beyond crises, however, compassionate leadership has proven to improve business metrics. As stated by The Economist, “Organisations with more compassionate leaders have … better collaboration, more trust, stronger commitment to the organisation, and lower turnover.”
A great example of an empathetic leader is New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Citizens of New Zealand felt she was fighting against COVID-19 alongside them, and they were willing to follow her guidance with little resistance. This empathetic approach resulted in New Zealand having one of the lowest rates of coronavirus cases in the world.
To become a more empathetic leader, executives should:
- Listen up. Provide employees with a platform to voice their opinions using digitally enabled tools to help track engagement.
- Walk the walk. Be a champion for change and make a tangible action plan based on insights from employee feedback.
- Give credit where credits due. Simply saying “thank you” or “well done” to an employee for a deserving effort can show appreciation and make a difference.
2) Speak Up and Mean It
Transparent communication is an essential leadership skill in the modern age that becomes even more necessary during a crisis. Employees expect that leaders will communicate transparently through times of change or unforeseen circumstances. A Forbes article states “Employees want to be a part of a workplace culture that puts a premium on delivering the truth…they just want transparency so they can plan and protect themselves.”
An example of transparent leadership is Joel Gascoigne, CEO and founder of Buffer, a global social-media management tool. Gascoigne built transparent communication into the foundation of Buffer, from emails being accessible by everyone in the organization to granting public access to their project management tool to show the progress of all product enhancements under development. Gascoigne also recently implemented “snow melt” meetings in which he meets with a small group of individuals across different levels and areas of the organization for an informal open discussion and an opportunity to share ideas.
Ways to imbue organizations with transparent communication include:
- Keep it simple. Make messages simple and digestible so employees can absorb what’s being said.
- Show vulnerability. It’s ok to say “I don’t know” when there’s uncertainty, as it demonstrates a level of honesty that people look for.
- Be authentic. Ensure that all communications are genuine, as this can help connect with employees on a personal level.
3) Scan the Horizon
As a leader, the ability to look beyond day-to-day operational issues is key. For example, low employee engagement today is likely to cause a future increase in attrition rate. A leader who looks to anticipate challenges will identify the staff turnover risk and take action to improve employee engagement before attrition ever becomes a problem.
The ability to anticipate opportunities earlier than competitors is a clear differentiator. Steve Jobs saw an opportunity with touchscreen smartphones when BlackBerry held 20% of the global smartphone market share. The iPhone created a new market in 2007 by leveraging existing technology, and by 2016, BlackBerry had stopped manufacturing its own phones.
Leaders can improve their anticipation by:
- Looking ahead. Block out half an hour every Friday afternoon to create space. Think about future challenges and prioritize your activities for the week ahead.
- Using their team. Create a regular forum or “Innovation Lab” for the team to meet, ideate and develop new ideas.
4) Adapt and Improve
Having a leader who is willing to adapt and embrace new ideas can help foster and stimulate a culture of innovation. People are far more likely to propose new ideas to improve their organization if they believe there is a real chance that leadership will act on suggestions and act quickly. This can improve employee engagement and raise staff morale, which in turn has been proven to increase productivity.
Despite a reputation for being a control-freak, Sir Alex Ferguson showed a remarkable ability to adapt during his 26 years in charge of Manchester United. Football experienced a phenomenal amount of change between 1986, when Sir Alex was hired, to his retirement in 2013, when he commented that “you control change by accepting it.” He hired experts and believed in “having confidence in the people you hire.”
Consider the following tips to become a more adaptable leader:
- Embrace change. When a team sees leaders embracing change, they are more likely to buy in.
- Embrace technology. New people analytics software gives actionable insights into team engagement and opinions.
- Fail. Learn. Do. Encourage ideas to flow, but be ready to stop ones that fail, learn the lessons, and focus on the winners.
It’s not easy to lead during these uncertain times, when executives must provide direction when the future path is unclear, keep team members on board and motivated, and effectively deal with operational issues. What is clear is that these four attributes are more important now than ever before, and they will continue to be critical as the business world defines its new normal. Leaders at all levels should couple these attributes with the experience and instincts gained over the years, and remain open to leveraging new technologies that help keep the “finger on the pulse” of today’s and tomorrow’s workplace.