How Covid Has Shaped the New Face of Leadership

As a part of our Leadership and Team Coaching activities, we are constantly researching and asking for feedback from leaders, teams, and other leadership coaches on what challenges they’re facing now, and what has worked and not worked in the past. Recently, I uncovered some interesting insights on how Leadership has been affected by Covid-19 and the lessons learned along the way.

Teams have been affected by the changes in environment, work processes, personal challenges, and isolation from their coworkers amongst other things. The best leaders have been flexible and open to what was needed on a day to day basis to help keep their employees in a state of flow despite all the new challenges. Or, as Fawzi Musallam, CEO at Kuwait Hotels Company, puts it, “It is a humbling experience and time to put EGO aside. It gave me the courage and vulnerability to simply start by saying....I don't know.”

Good leaders were able to step up to address the needs of business as well as employee engagement. They understood that there would be long term effects of humans living in a counter intuitive work environment. However, for some, this took time. Dennis Kight, Executive Coach at It Works!, who coaches leaders around the world, told me that, “My greatest challenge was waiting for leaders to wrap their minds around how impactful and long lasting this pandemic would be. Everything was put on temporary hold at first. Once they realized that the pandemic was here for the long haul they began reaching out for help on how to move forward.” Others speak about the “Cocooning Effect'' the pandemic had on people and how it kept some stuck and unable to address changes that were happening so rapidly it made people uncomfortable. It’s a natural behavior for humans to be resistant to change and stay in our comfort zones. The winners were those that dared to face the fear, roll up their sleeves, and find solutions.

Here are some key takeaways around my discussions with leaders and executives in various industries:

1. Communication from leaders needs to be more frequent as a result of the takeover of virtual work environments.

It's a mistake to underestimate the value of face time with one's direct reports. Time and dedication will inspire the same with staff and keep people motivated toward a common goal. A client working in organizational development within the retail space highlights that, “now leaders have to demonstrate leadership more frequently - remote work requires more intentional engagement, especially for those who never worked remotely before.”

2. The lack of human contact also means that greater care must be taken in the communications themselves.

The nuances we used to rely on from face to face exchanges with co-workers evaporated in the WFH model. Black and white correspondence doesn't allow for staff to gauge what a co-worker or leaders mood might be in real time and how those signals may impact how the words are received. “The inability to appear in person with colleagues, customers, potential customers, partners, potential partners, et cetera has driven home the importance of precision in written and on-camera spoken communication in the workplace," observes Michael Petrucelli, President, US Government Solutions Division at Rational 360. “In the absence of regular, in-person interaction, team members do not have as many non-verbal (e.g. visual) cues to work from in interpreting what their leaders mean and how they are feeling….The lack of direct personal interaction, or the filter of appearing on a small screen box on camera, removes that ability and therefore places a greater burden on leadership since Covid to be very clear and explicit with the messages they send to their organizations. That way the teams they work with can focus on analytic content execution rather than fears or worries based on feelings.”

3. Leaders need to step up their Emotional Intelligence skills.

EQ helps leaders be more resilient and manage stress and pressure effectively. Emotionally intelligent people are better at being aware of their emotions like stress, anxiety, anger so that they can diffuse them quicker and and shift to a more constructive and creative mindset when necessary. In addition, EQ helps leaders be more empathic to their staff, checking from time to time that employees feel safe, listening to their fears and concerns, and ensuring they have all the resources they need. “They have to be hyper aware of emotional states. For leaders who do not have high EQ this is likely incredibly hard on their teams. Because employees are dealing with so many more variables in their lives due to Covid, leaders also need to adjust expectations, norms, behaviors and approaches for each unique employee”, says the organizational development executive. EQ is one of the most sought-after skills of hiring managers and recruiters. We took for granted the ability to read the emotional states of others in person. Now there seems to be an emphasis on leaning into understanding what’s happening to staff on a personal level. There is more value to that now. A marketing executive working in the Luxury Goods industry highlights that, “The leadership within my organisation have become more understanding of the personal challenges of staff during the pandemic (isolation from Friends & Family, WFH, balancing family and work life, economic/political events affecting our morale. However, they are way more transparent on the commercial realities of the business and how jobs have / will be lost and the landscape is uncertain.”

4. Rethink top-down Leadership and empower staff to be leaders

"Directive leadership isn't working anymore," says Jennifer Whipple Griffin, Executive Transformation Coach and Program Manager at 304 Coaching, who works with leaders and teams. "We have developed so many more independent young thinkers today that leadership needs to be more persuasive. Therefore, leading through conversation agility, persuasion and creating the ability to develop a growth mindset is MUCH more powerful than telling someone what to do. It also creates longer lasting results!"

The pandemic has been devastating for businesses, especially in the service industry, but individuals are beginning to speak about some positive outcomes. Here are some benefits leaders say have emerged over the past year:

Some businesses are thriving and hiring is on an upswing.

Sectors such as healthcare, digital marketing, e-commerce, education, and banking are among the industries that have sen an increase in employment. A Senior Staffing Consultant at one of the top tech recruiting firms tells me that, “Our organization has flourished during Covid. While we have seen tremendous turnover since the start of 2021, leadership is treating this as a fresh start to build up the best teams they can and hiring has been at an all time high.”

Co-workers have become more nimble and adaptable.

The ability to think critically is crucial to success in an ever evolving environment. Businesses will continue to face challenges that require teams to be innovative in their problem-solving. Fawzi Musallam claims, “It forced the team members to break the mold, adopt new strategies, and welcome change.”

Seeing the positives in WFM.

There is the realization that Working From Home is here to stay--even if in a “hybrid” way for many companies. People speak about the time saved from commuting and how it’s freed up more time to be productive in other areas. “The ‘silent bias’ against teleworking is now largely dispelled, I think,” says M. Petrucelli. “Knowing that distance working is easy to structure and usually only affects productivity in a positive way is a good thing for business.”

The world has somehow become smaller and more accessible.

What we didn't think was possible before has become normal business practice, including businesses spreading the net and acquiring clients and customers across borders more than ever before. Leadership Coach Mariam Moussa reports that there is “more exposure/access worldwide. It feels like borders were eliminated.” Companies are investing less in real estate for offices and are more likely to hire qualified staff in geographical locations they would have not previously considered.

Lastly, the very fact that co-workers and managers are sharing their personal, at-home space on a daily basis with people on their team seems to have created a positive bond within organizations. "I think it has offered leaders a chance to connect with their teams on a more emotional and human level," declares the president of a global demand generation agency. "It’s also forced us to rethink how we communicate and connect with our teams. In a weird way it’s brought us closer on some levels."

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