LEADERSHIP DURING LOCKDOWN: WHAT I’VE LEARNED FROM LEADERS ABOUT CHANGE, AND WHAT THIS MEANS FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT TODAY

On a weekly basis over the last three months, I have been in the privileged position of hosting leaders from a wide range of industry sectors at Changing Point’s Change Leadership virtual seminars. Our discussions have – unsurprisingly – focused on the current and evolving demands on leaders facing the unprecedented task of leading people through a pandemic, from an early and important focus on employee wellbeing through to more recent conversations on establishing the ‘new normal’.

The experiences, insights and ideas shared and generated during these sessions over the last 12-weeks have offered an invaluable understanding of the challenges and opportunities universally facing change leaders right now. And taking a step back to look at the consistent conversation themes that arose week-after-week, it’s apparent that many of the on-going challenges leaders continue to face occur at a deeper emotional and behavioural level.

Here’s a quick snapshot of these key themes and the discussions we’ve had:

Effective virtual working requires an organisational culture re-boot

While the rapid implementation of an IT infrastructure to support cross-company remote working almost overnight was difficult and stressful, especially for organisations new to home working, amazingly most companies rose successfully to the challenge. For some, it even helped to accelerate flexible working policies that had been stuck in review for months.

However, this new way of working has now highlighted a deeper issue for leaders to address: what does this mean for our organisational culture? During our discussions, we heard evidence of emerging virtual silos across organisations, which is a real risk of prolonged remote working that must be quickly addressed.

Having the right policy and processes in place to support remote working is not enough. Effective virtual working also requires behavioural alignment. And as it looks like virtual working is here to stay (at least in some capacity), now is the time for an organisational culture re-boot to ensure people stay connected beyond their immediate (virtual) teams to the wider organisational purpose. Plus, a greater focus on social connection at this time will also help to build organisational resilience, which will be essential during continued uncertainty.

Re-igniting awareness of what it means to live company values (particularly within the present context), role modelling cross-company virtual collaboration to solve today’s change challenges and re-enforcing current shared organisational goals (we talked about the co-development of a 90-day map of the ‘new world’) are some of the ways we looked at achieving this.

Leaders need time to emotionally recharge

At a more personal level, it’s clear from our conversations that the emotional impact of the current situation has been truly intense for leaders.

In the early stages of lockdown, the pressure to compassionately manage and support the unique needs of others, whilst experiencing the same plethora of emotions personally, was incredibly draining. Many leaders have also taken on greater operational duties in addition to existing responsibilities while staff numbers have been reduced. Others reported feeling the weight of a perceived expectation that, as a leader, they must have all the answers (an impossible ask in the current state of uncertainty).

One of the common reflection points raised by leaders over the last 12 weeks has been the lack of time given to processing personal emotional reactions to change. The need for a greater focus on leadership self-care was and is evident.

It’s unrealistic to expect leaders to instantly bounce back from such a challenging and emotional period, and it’s encouraging to hear that leaders who’ve worked relentlessly over the last few months now recognise the need to take a break (which should be encouraged).

But again, as we discussed in our sessions, there’s an opportunity and necessity to act on this at a deeper behavioural and emotional level. By creating a greater openness to the value of leadership emotional intelligence, and the development of these core emotional and social skills, leaders can enhance their ability to effectively recognise and respond to the impact of continued uncertainty on themselves and others, with consequent positive effects on personal and organisational performance and wellbeing.

Uncertainty can boost leadership agility

When we asked leaders to reflect on what had gone well for them during lockdown, many shared their surprise at just how quickly they (and their teams) had managed to implement new ways of working, launch new product offerings or evolve their services to meet current customer needs. In some cases, this had involved quickly actioning existing plans that had previously never reached the top of the priority list. For others, it required rapid prototyping of new ideas.

The uncertainty that businesses suddenly faced seemed to act as a catalyst for leadership agility, with a resulting greater confidence in adopting a more experimental approach and self-belief in the ability to deliver change quickly.

Having unlocked this potential, there’s now an opportunity to hone these skills to create change-ready leaders for the future, aligning continued innovation to the evolving ‘new world’ vision and strategy.

Adversity offers opportunity to build leadership trust

One of the positives to come out of such an emotionally challenging time has been a reported increase in human connection across businesses.

One specific example we heard to support this was the time given during lockdown to the communications cascaded from the top of organisations, with greater focus given not just to what must be said but also how best to say it. There has also been a greater frequency of communication (e.g. weekly company-wide Zoom updates from CEOs), and opportunities for two-way interactions and input from all levels. And in some instances, a more open and honest leadership communication style has been apparent in the delivery of tough messages with emotional sensitivity.

The leaders we spoke to shared that adopting a more empathic and inclusive communication style through the early weeks of lockdown has generated positive results relating to employee engagement, productivity and leadership trust. Clear communication with a people-focus is essential to any change success, and these results highlight the powerful impact it can have during times of extreme uncertainty.

The challenge now is maintaining this momentum. As businesses rebuild, and leaders’ calendars begin to fill once more, there is a risk that old habits and behaviours could creep back in. To continue to build on trust that has been gained, leaders must consciously consider how they will work with their teams and each other going forward to ensure that any positive change achieved so far is not lost.

What’s next for leadership development?

The impact of the last few months has created both new challenges for leaders and positive opportunities for change and refocus. It’s clear that the need to confidently lead people through continued uncertainty is here to stay.

Now is the time for leaders to focus on the development of key behavioural, emotional and social skills. In doing so, leaders will be in a much stronger position to positively impact on-going organisational change and transformation.

Jayne Ruff

Occupational Psychologist & Director, Changing Point

Changing Point is an organisational development and change consultancy with over 15 years’ experience supporting individuals, teams and businesses with the universal challenge of developing a people-centric approach to leading change.

To find out more about how we are positively challenging and supporting leaders through the specific changes they face today, please contact
leaders@changing-point.com

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Jayne Ruff Occupational Psychologist & Director at ChangingPoint For more information on ChangingPoint, please contact jayne@changing-point.com