Leading During Exceptional Times - Insight from Marcia Hazzard, WIG Head of Leadership
It has been said repeatedly that these are unprecedented times. Organisations and their business models have transformed almost overnight. Those operating at senior leadership levels will know the classic theoretical models, such as Adair’s Situational or Action-Centred Leadership1, but nothing could have quite prepared us for the global onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. The essential components of leadership activities like strategic planning, wide communication, leveraging the power of teams, working in collaboration within and outside of your networks – have taken on a completely new dimension. For example, we have seen Nissan is part of a consortium, including sports car firm McLaren and aerospace company Meggitt, looking to develop a new medical ventilator.
How does a leader remain authentic, resilient and balanced during this time? A recent Forbes.com report highlighted that in facing COVID-19, every company must balance the needs of and commitments to all stakeholders, including customers, employees, suppliers, and local communities. Leaders also have a responsibility to manage diversity effectively. Inclusivity will remain important now and after the pandemic as we support our employees.
In order to do all this, leaders must firstly manage themselves. It is important to recognise that we are all human beings, facing the same stress, uncertainty and possibly fear that our employees, customers, shareholders, families and friends are facing; business leaders must ensure they stay mentally and physically healthy to navigate these exceptional times.
One of the huge advantages of WIG leadership programmes is the opportunity they provide to share and learn across sectors. This is particularly helpful in dealing with COVID-19 and has enabled the participants to share, learn and support beyond their own organisations and sectors.
A recent session with participants on our Senior Leaders Programme discussed some of the emerging themes and a few of them are captured here:
1. Kit: being ready to work differently.
One key differentiator in organisations being able to respond rapidly to a new way of working was the extent to which they had already invested in the kit that employees now need to work differently. The foresight to create a more flexible way of working has paid dividends. There have been particular challenges for some, where some of the most senior people having not engaged fully with tech previously are now finding that they have to.
2. Catalysing new ways of working.
Organisations have identified how rapidly decisions can be made, changes implemented, processes smoothed, solutions generated, when there is such a pressing need. While this is working in extremis it is worth capturing learning from “what works now” to then think about how these changes can be built into our new future.
3. Virtual working: the good, the bad and the ugly.
For some, shifting to more virtual working has had real upsides, such as thinking about productivity, sustainability, flexibility. There are some obvious benefits - and it has also made myths of some of the dogma around what can and cannot be done virtually. However, there are also cautions:
Creating a separation between home life and work life is tricky and if we don’t pay attention, it can put pressure on both.
For some, this still feels isolating. Video calls help because people see each other, but without being deliberate about keeping in touch, interaction can be reduced to much more formal business activity.
Don’t assume video calls work for everyone. Some people’s separation between home and work means the visual invitation into their home feels intrusive. There are big problems for some on internet bandwidth with visual connectivity, and others have felt it can draw attention to perceived differences around life - is the backdrop to your video call a wood-panelled private office in your large country pad, or the kitchen sink of a bedsit which your adult child has had to move in. How comfortable are all staff at having it assumed that a shift to home working is seamless and easy?
There have been significant internal and external communications challenges, such as providing relevant up- to- date information to your workforce, customers, clients and stakeholders, which is not easy in such a volatile environment. Having already established communication methods that allow for feedback and questions helps, otherwise the information feels very one-way and it is hard to calibrate whether there is enough or too much. Again, there are lots of lessons to be learnt about what is now working well or otherwise which could be put into place more routinely when things become more settled.
5. Workforce resilience.
People mostly respond incredibly well in a crisis and can find enormous reserves of energy and purpose they didn’t know they had. In this case, though, it isn’t a matter of some heroic short- term effort. People are looking to develop a new normal and will respond very differently. Energy will ebb and flow in a different rhythm for lots of your staff, there is a requirement of leaders to pay attention to what is happening for staff and ensure that they are looking after themselves and not creating a need for unreasonable and sustained levels of excessive effort. Caring both for the physical and mental health of your staff will be key to their resilience.
6. Look after yourself.
As well as the operational imperative and challenges around business continuity, leaders are holding a lot of emotion. You are very much needed to be there for your staff and your organisation but you can only do that if you are well resourced and supported yourself. Be kind to yourself, reach out for support if you need it.
WIG Leadership Programmes are designed to develop resilience and leadership skills in a cross-sector environment. They equip participants with confidence, practical tools to resolving leadership challenges, and an invaluable network of peers to offer support, a relatable sounding board, or push-back when needed. To find out more, visit our Leadership section.
1. J E Adair (2007
Head of Leadership
Marcia has over 25 years’ experience within the HR, leadership and organisational development fields. She has worked within the public sector in a range of human resource development roles, as well as supporting capacity building within private and third sector organisations. She holds an MSc in Human Resource Development (specialising in organisational consulting); is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (FCIPD) since 2008 and has been serving as an Employment Tribunal member since 1999. She is an experienced senior manager of HR and L&D functions within organisations and has acted as an HR consultant for many others providing them with workforce improvement solutions. Marcia also spent 15 years within the higher education sector, providing strategic and operational management of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in business management and human resource management. Marcia is very committed to building leadership capacity within organisations and has tried to encourage the synergy of cross-sector working to do so within her various roles. She is particularly interested in supporting new and future leaders to be inspiring and inclusive in their approach. Her other human resource development interests include promoting employee wellbeing and engagement, diversity and equality, creating agile cultures and acquiring and retaining talent.