Leadership, pandemics and the future of working

The coronavirus has been successful at sneaking up from behind and taking a bite out of life's normal expectations

Leadership, pandemics and the future of working

The coronavirus has been successful at sneaking up from behind and taking a bite out of life’s normal expectations. But while not many people expected a pandemic, even fewer expected leadership to expose how nations, governments and businesses of all shapes and sizes respond to crisis. Leadership differences between presidents and prime ministers, fast-food chains and stand-alone restaurants, and bricks and mortar versus on-line retailers have been breathtaking. In the absence of leadership, we rely on the crisis itself to dictate objectives, timelines and resources. In the presence of real leadership, however, we expect leaders to do what others who are afraid won’t do; the necessary things to achieve either by standing up to speak or sitting down to listen.

After financial markets rebound and retail stores reopen, the future of working is unlikely return to the way it was before COVID-19. Daily commutes to the office will more often than not become the distance between the bedroom and kitchen table. Interstate and international travel to attend conferences, client meetings and business development activities will instead be conducted through virtual meeting applications on mobile devices, pads or laptops. Learning, from compliance to continuing education, will be acquired in small, bite-sized chunks of self-directed modules via company portal or external service provider.

Ironically, none of these 20th century work practices is new or even ground breaking. But the leadership required to support, facilitate and realise the full potential of these practices in the current and post-pandemic new normal is prescient. Managing will continue on the current trajectory of a self-directed exercise in the future of working. More expectation will be placed on individuals to manage teams, deliverables and commercial outcomes. Leadership in the new normal, on the other hand, will require an entirely different set of agreed upon gradations of decentralised trust based on proximity, capability and purpose.

Distance makes the heart grow insecure
On the first day of the COVID-19 work-from-home shutdown, a former colleague lamented that their general manager, who had seldom shared a corridor salutation, suddenly required a daily “check in” to see what the team was working on. After two weeks of uncomfortable prodding and silence, the 9am bed check was reduced to three times weekly. With any luck, the team muttered openly, the check in’s will soon revert to the schedule prior to the shutdown.

The physical proximity between teams and leaders working from home prompted by the pandemic has opened up flurry of leadership contemplation. Leaders falsely equate micro-managing from a distance with leadership. The reality, however, is there is no micro in leadership. Truth be told, the self-justification to micro-manage comes from insecurity and trust in one’s own leadership capability. To counter leadership inadequacies, managers seek control. The busy work of micro-managing and unnecessary oversight becomes a go-to crutch in times of self-doubt and mistrust – especially from a distance, and gives the false sensation of leadership gone well.

Leaders are made and continue to learn
The deputy CEO had been given the decision he’d been waiting for from the board. In just over nine months, he would begin his tenure as only the third company CEO after a mostly ceremonial six years in the number two spot. The retiring CEO was charismatic, engaging and well-liked across the business. The deputy, by comparison, was a scrappy doer who had worked his way up from a business unit general manager.

Soon after stepping into new CEO’s shoes, the coronavirus pandemic picked up speed. With company share price in free-fall and an unknown financial market ahead, the new CEO kept his head down and worked at home in virtual quiet. He confided in a family confidant that his hard work and commitment to the business would keep the company afloat. Unbeknownst to the CEO, the company was moving on without him in the absence of tangible leadership that couldn’t be seen, heard or felt.

Head down, bum up is a seldom-used capability to describe leadership especially when it’s done in silence. Often times when hard work is required from leaders, outcomes are just as important as methodology. In the midst of a crisis, leadership can seem fleeting and nebulous. But it isn’t. Leadership is decisive, competent, communicative and empowering. Leadership never stops evolving and learning never ends. When the moment to lead arrives, communicate what you’re doing and empower others to do the same. There’s rarely a second chance to lead for the first time.

Leadership without purpose isn’t leadership at all
Now she was the finance team leader and could finally replace the payroll manager plaque in her cubicle. It felt good to lead a team she told her coach, but what would she do now that everyone was working from home? She knew payroll backwards, forwards and upside down. But this was new territory. Her first leadership instincts were to focus on helping the new payroll manager. She spent day after day sending detailed emails about how to do the job to the new guy. When responses to her emails to payroll slowed down, so did she. Now she was onto accounts payable providing advice on how to do what she used to do years earlier. After a few days, accounts payable’s responses to her emails stopped completely. The new team leader was onto her next finance function.

Leadership without purpose can be maddening if not meddlesome. It’s as if you’re always getting in the way, but with all the best intentions. Surprisingly, for many new leaders, the purpose of leadership isn’t a pre-packaged item that can be picked off the shelf and applied without needs-specific due diligence. Ironically, the purpose of leadership can be uncovered by asking a simple question. “How can I support you?” Assuming knowledge, skills and abilities are in place, purposeful leadership starts by asking what’s needed, giving the guidance asked for and then getting out of the way.

Three tips to leading from home
If your company hasn’t discussed or fully realised the benefits of working from home before the pandemic, there will surely be valid groundswell when the new normal settles in. Reductions in office leasing costs and increased work efficiencies are but two commercial drivers of change. However, less commuting time and more time with family on either end of the workday is a work-life-balancing game changer.

With these changes likely to become a significant part of the future of working following the pandemic, here are three tips to leading from home.

1. Establish a check in routine (and stick to it).
Take time to develop a consistent method and rhythm of communicating with your team with or without a crisis. One of the most under-rated leadership capabilities is good communication skills. Leaders often think actions or outcomes speak louder than words, but mistakenly disregard when, how often and under what circumstances communication is required. When teams work remotely, it’s much more difficult to observe actions and manage outcomes from a distance. It’s not only important to communicate regularly, but even more important to discuss and agree upon how best to communicate with each other. Set communication expectations and be the first to set the best example. Don’t wait until a pandemic to check in.

2. Be transparent about what you’re working on (and expect the same from others).
Nobody expects a running moment-by-moment description of everyday life at home. However, open dialogue (clarification) about what you’re working on (objective) over a defined period of time (milestone) to set expectations (goal) is a reasonable exercise to lead, share and confirm. As a leader, working hard doesn’t mean working alone and definitely not in secret. The ends should never justify the means. Talk openly, honestly and as often as required about what you’re working on, and ask for and encourage input from others. Empower your team to take ownership of individual objectives, while simultaneously reaffirming everyone’s responsibility for completing team goals.

3. Ask how you can support your team (and they will tell you what they need).
Giving random, unrequested or unnecessary advice may be appropriate as a parent, but not so much as a leader. If you’ve concluded that you can do the job better than someone you lead, then do it. In the process, you’ll strip away their self-confidence and their trust in you as a leader. If, on the other hand, you want to build confidence and develop trust in the capabilities of the team you lead, ask how can you support them in what they are doing. Asking to support someone is giving your permission for them to take control, own the problem and the solution. Even more, it provides a self- fulfilling developmental opportunity. By giving them ownership of their development, they will trust you to give them what they need to be successful…even from home.


About the author: Dr Wesley Payne McClendon is chief executive, thought leader and Executive Director, McClendon Research Group, Inc. Wesley was previously Chief Strategy and Transformation Executive and Board Director at Gooroo (ASX-GOO); Managing Director and Professor, Edinburgh Institute (UK and Hong Kong); Partner and UK Practice Leader, Mercer HR Consulting (London); and Principle and Melbourne Practice Leader, Ernst & Young (Australia). Dr McClendon is author of more than 25 articles and 2 books including “Strategy, People and Performance.” A third book, “Leadership, People and Culture Due Diligence in M&A, Integration and Restructure,” will be published later this year.

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