Last month we discussed how strong people leadership had become an even more highly prized skillset in transport and infrastructure during the last year operating during the pandemic.
Never has it been more important to have strong leaders – yet neither has there ever been a more challenging environment in which to lead.
After a year of organisations operating in a global pandemic, and with so much uncertainty still ahead, how do business chiefs engage and motivate their teams to be high-performing? It is a conundrum made all the harder by the unusual ways of working forced upon leaders and their teams during the ongoing battle against the virus.
Stakes are high, the pressure is on and it is easy to make damaging mistakes.
Bill Michael, the UK chairman of KPMG, stepped down from the position last month after comments he made to staff in a video meeting about working life during the Covid era. These comments had a significant impact both internally and externally. Whether he would have made the same comments if he was speaking to hundreds of real faces in a room, rather than on video, we will never know.
One CEO recently told me he believed that Covid-19 had highlighted who the good leaders were in his present company with more precision than any internal talent review process. In this extreme environment there is nowhere to hide.
So what are the most important areas for senior managers to excel in if they want to be strong leaders in 2021?
Many of us are having to cope with very challenging working conditions during this pandemic.
Three team members who previously sat at the same row of modern desks in a temperature-controlled head office may now be working in hugely varying conditions encompassing, working space, internet connection, as well as care responsibilities for children and other dependents. And then there are the site-based staff who continue to go out to work and deliver front line services.
Understanding people’s plights and the pressures upon them is no longer an option for good leaders; they can’t hide behind a policy document or demand presenteeism in an office. Empathy is critical to get the best out of people at the moment and working relationships must be mutually beneficial and flexible to survive.
An element of compromise is required in managing people during these exceptional times.
Linked to empathy is the ability to connect with people, both on a personal and professional level. When times are good, some business leaders might just about get by without optimum levels of engagement. But in times of hardship, leaders must engage with people on an emotional level to drive a business forward.
So as well as understanding the different situations faced by individuals in the business, both at home and at work, and of course throughout the blurred boundaries that now exist between the two, effective leaders need to engage these people to want to go that extra mile for the shared goal.
This has been made more important by the pandemic but also made so much harder. For example, when do senior managers visit sites, and when do they stay at home? There are many factors to consider here – what do the government guidelines say, what is the risk of catching or passing on the virus, and what are the operational benefits of an in-person visit?
Workers told to adhere strictly to Covid-safety rules on site may be unimpressed by a Director visiting site and view it as non-essential. But equally many operational staff might not like to see a Director undertaking a virtual safety tour from the comfort of their home office, and would much rather see their leadership out (socially distanced but) alongside them.
Whichever route leaders deem best for a given situation, they may have to adapt their usual communication style to get their message across. Screens and face masks, social distancing rules and home working all stand in the way of effective engagement. Thinking outside the box and understanding your team’s perspective is important here.
Everyone in the industry has been affected by Covid, whether by staff absence, changes to the way sites/operations are able to operate, the economic fallout or other variables.
Getting things done effectively during this period requires effective collaboration with a range of bodies from clients to regulators to suppliers and even competitors.
Companies have needed to talk to all organisations they interface with to ensure everyone understands what is and isn’t possible and to mitigate the impacts of working in different ways and dealing with changing circumstances.
Those bosses who struggle to build positive dialogue and listen are unlikely to make the strongest leaders at this difficult time.
Collaboration has long been a buzz word in the industry but now it really could be the key to survival for many firms.
4. Managing change
Pretty much every business in the UK went into a sudden and unavoidable change process a year ago when the first lockdown was announced.
An ability to smooth out the bumps on that enforced ride would have taken business leaders a long way into securing a successful negotiation of the pandemic – but of course the change has kept coming and it isn’t over yet by any stretch of the imagination.
The ability to manage business change, involve wide ranges of functional teams in developing new processes, understanding the impact of change on people, project managing the change and selling it to all stakeholders, has been highly sought after.
Who knows what lies ahead but at some point offices will reopen and sites will be able to operate in more familiar ways. Furloughed workers will return.
The gradual end of the pandemic will bring its own massive change project for leaders to drive their teams through. There will be pleasant aspects and not-so-nice jobs. While some staff will be delighted to return to their desks, others will have become used to staying at home.
What balance of WFH and office will organisations arrive at?
Leaders who can steer their staff through a very tricky year with minimum damage to morale and productivity will be highly prized by their organisations.
I suppose if I was to sum up the four categories of strong leadership through the pandemic in one word it would be communication.
The ability to communicate a range of different messages for those in many varying situations during a global crisis is what the industry really needs from its senior leaders in 2021.