The new leadership muscles for today’s environment

By Dr. Shalini Sarin March 10, 2022
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Do leaders need to develop a few new muscles to manage and lead in today’s changing environment?

We all realize that the world has changed a lot from the industrial era to the technology era and now to the post COVID era. Pace of change keeps increasing than ever before. Given the new context, there are a new set of skills and capabilities or new muscles as I refer to them, that Leaders need to develop and practice to succeed and lead effectively.

While COVID-19 crisis has expedited this transformation beyond imagination, there are several factors which are compelling this change, namely digitization, artificial intelligence, climate change, aggregation of services through apps, different business models e.g., moving from product alone to product, system and services, reduction in product differentiation and reduced innovation time to market. The global pandemic has accelerated long-standing trends, bringing the nature and characteristics of the future successful enterprise into finer resolution.

Muscle #1: Ability to think, prioritize and act fast.

What matters most? What are the top three things that are needed to steady and reset the business? What can be pushed to the back burner? The situation is changing by the day or sometimes even by the hour. Effective leaders quickly process available information, rapidly determine what matters most, and make decisions with conviction. During a crisis, cognitive overload looms, information is incomplete, interests and priorities may clash, and emotions and anxieties run high. Analysis-paralysis can easily result, exacerbated by natural tendency of matrixed organizations to build consensus. Leaders must break through this inertia to keep the organization trained on business continuity, while increasing the odds of mid to long-term success by focusing on the critical few. A simple, scalable framework for rapid decision-making is key.

Leaders need to identify and communicate not more than 3 to 5 priority areas. Early in the crisis, those might include employee safety and care, financial liquidity, customer care, and operational continuity. Leadership must be fully aligned and prepared to make course corrections as events unfold. This requires making smart trade-offs. There may be conflicts amongst priorities that are outlined, between urgent and important, between survival today and success tomorrow? Instead of thinking about all possibilities, leaders reorganize priorities basis scoring mechanism to force trade-offs.

In your central command "war room,' establish who owns what. Empower the front line to make decisions where possible, and clearly state what needs to be escalated, by when, and to whom. Your default should be to push decisions downward, not up. Embrace action, and don't punish mistakes. Missteps will happen, however, research indicates that failing to act is much worse.

COVID has forced companies to bypass the phase of endless analysis and simply act. Weekly leadership team meetings have shifted to daily video calls, and the timeline of decision to execution has shortened. People are adopting rallying cries of ‘failing fast’ & ‘failing forward.’. This has led to greater agility, more freedom to be perfectly imperfect and created an awkward, wonky state, where forgiveness has never been higher. There is need for decisive leadership which can take decisions without all the information. We can ill afford analysis-paralysis. What matters most is speed of decision and action.

Muscle #2: See and treat your associates as complete human beings, not just assets or resources.

Employees’ personal needs and mental wellbeing are of equal importance as are their abilities and competencies. Work-life balance is no longer a nice to have concept enjoyed only by a handful of global organizations. The pandemic has emphasized the need for softer skills that are the hallmark of modern leadership. Empathy has always been a critical skill for leaders, but it is taking on a new level of meaning and priority. Far from a soft approach, empathy can drive significant business results.

The employee is not just a pair of arms and a sound mind but a complete package along with his personal needs and environment, which includes his physical and mental well-being. Hence leaders and organizations are investing a great deal these days on the complete well-being of the employee. Technology has blurred the boundaries between work and home, hence turning a blind eye to home or personal needs is not an option any more for any leader.

It is a well-known fact that demonstrating empathy has a huge positive impact on employee motivation, but new research emphasizes its importance on innovation and retention too. Great leadership requires a fine mix of skills to create conditions for engagement, happiness and performance. Empathy tops the list of what leaders must get right.

While a lot has been written about the importance of showing more humanity and vulnerability by Leaders, a large number still follow the command-and-control mode. They pretend that they know more than anyone else and keep their emotional distance. Those approaches don’t work, with the millennials nor when the environment is so uncertain. Current crisis is re-emphasizing the importance of showing this more human side.

At Schneider Electric India, I remember trying to introduce, flexible working and WFH a few years ago. I vividly recall how the leadership team rolled their eyes with scepticism worrying no work would ever get done. There were doubts that employees would misuse this flexibility. When the pandemic hit, the entire world was forced to work from home yet work continued and often with higher levels of efficiency. I feel good that Schneider has adopted flexi working and WFH globally as a lever to attract talent. It is not only the progressive organizations but even the conservative one’s who are adopting this new way of working. Technology adoption aided this change in record time. People discovered news ways of connecting and getting things done. When employees are able to recharge and work with flexibility, it catalyzes self-initiated growth through empowerment. CFO’s happily booked savings from shifting to smaller offices, minimal travel and a more productive organization.

Treat people fairly, include the quiet ones. Water all your plants. Some will shoot right up, and others will lie dormant for years before sprouting, but they too can help the rest of the team. Grass will not grow faster by pulling it. Leaders need to create conditions where the grass can grow, with water, light, sunshine and care.

Muscle # 3 – Strengthen your pivotal role in employee & team engagement.

Especially, in times of crisis, no job is more important than taking care of your team. Effective leaders are understanding of their team's circumstances and distractions, and find ways to engage, motivate, and communicate clearly & thoroughly. This muscle deserves extra attention as it grips tight the team and the organization, keeping retention high.

Forging that sense of togetherness & teamwork virtually could be a challenge — it’s particularly difficult to pick up on clues from colleagues on how they are coping. “How are you?” has become a much more meaningful question, and leaders are learning to read body language over video calls. “You have to really train yourself to know who needs help or maybe who isn’t coping as well,” “The most difficult part for me in this virtual world is not having those moments in the hallway or getting coffee, when you can read somebody and know they need more support.” When employees feel appreciated and valued for their performance, work can become more meaningful, especially where recognition and core values are aligned.

Schneider Electric is highly focused on diversity across the board. Targets are set for increasing digital capability and gender, generational & cultural diversity. Sadly, the talent management panel ends up selecting people ‘like them’ with ‘relevant experience’. Others get ejected from the system as they do not ‘fit in.’ Thus, they ended up growing the same type of leaders and are forced to go out to hire diverse leadership skills. How can a square peg ever fit into a round hole?

Importance of these skills and approaches is no longer theoretical since executives are using them every day, out of necessity, and reaping benefits. Communicating optimism about the future is an important tool that good Leaders choose. Collect and amplify positive messages -successes, acts of kindness, obstacles that have been overcome. Many companies are tied to a noble purpose, such as saving lives, manufacturing medical equipment, helping markets function more efficiently, or providing joy. Whatever your purpose, celebrate your daily (often unsung) heroes. Simply staying productive in these times is heroic.

At Philips, we had a practice of check-in before the start of every meeting and check out before the end of every meeting. Check-ins essentially included everyone in the room, individually to answer three questions, how are they feeling today, is anything keeping their mind away or occupied with other worries or thoughts and are they available 100% for this meeting? And check outs included if they found the meeting useful, has the meeting objective been met and are they clear on next steps? When I initially joined the company, I thought, this ritual was a waste of time but over a period, I learnt the utility of this practice. In new teams, we need to spend more time in check-ins, however as the team gets old, check-ins become shorter and more open and franker. People are not shy or ashamed to hold back if some issue in their personal life is bothering them. It just brought the teams together and the individual was treated as a complete unit beyond his professional self.

Leaders can tap on discretionary effort of their teams, reduce alienation, enhance employee commitment, retention, ownership and belonging through enhancing employee engagement which results increased teamwork, productivity and innovation.

Muscle #4 – Grow distributed leadership and empowerment at all levels.

Leadership is not only at the top, but across the length and breadth of the organization. Organizations cannot survive unless there is distributed leadership and empowerment at all levels. Having a strong middle belly or empowered middle management is a big differentiator and investing not only in upskilling them but also giving them a voice and a platform to participate is important. It is acknowledged that the middle management hold the pulse of the organization and can influence those above and below effectively.

A Leader who has courage to show vulnerability and is authentic is sought after today. Employees no longer get inspired only by one visionary or charismatic leader, they find inspiration from peers, youngsters in their team, some innovation or technology in the environment etc.

Leadership is not about the leader, but it starts with her. Before embarking on an exercise, Leaders must first become self-aware. Self-aware Leaders are better equipped to connect and collaborate inside and outside their organization since they are willing to look in the mirror, take time to listen and respond to feedback. Accountability will help leaders make this shift. There is no room for ego-centric leadership or ‘me-ship’ for organizations large or small, now or ever. The only time as a leader you should use the word “I” is when making tough decisions where the consequences ultimately rest on you. The rest of the time use “we”.

Muscle #5 – Create a culture of psychological safety to unleash potential

According to research by Amy Edmondson, professor at Harvard Business School, when a manager can create psychological safety, they not only enhance discretionary effort but also a sense of belonging, reduces alienation and increases a sense of ownership. It liberates the employees from fear of consequence will help them realize their full potential. This environment helps people find it easy to check assumptions, discuss errors and mistakes without fear and even collaborate and consult or even ask for help when they need. Thus, enhancing innovation, growth and continuous renewal.

Many leaders are likely to develop an ego inadvertently over a period based on past successes. What differentiates good leaders from managers is their ability to listen and learn while suspending judgement.

How do Leaders build their muscle to listen well and listen to the frontline managers? Listen to learn. One of CEOs at Philips shared with me that, during COVID, he had stopped broadcasting one way messages during townhalls. “I only share quick 10 minutes updates and then spend most of my time to listen and learn.” “The insights and learnings that I get through this are phenomenal.” “It was early signals from one of the townhalls with China, that helped us prepare for what was going to hit the entire world.”

While we need leaders who have their ears to the ground and can roll up their sleeves, they need to have the ability to take a distance too. While Leaders need to be agile and have a bias for action, they must have patience. Can zoom in when required and zoom out when not. Listen well yet have a sound judgement of their own.

As leaders, we all work with employees who are different from us, especially in today’s times when there is a lot of emphasis on having diverse teams. Until recently, many leaders ignored those differences, believing that they were not relevant in the workplace. Even today, some leaders don't believe it's their responsibility to make their employees feel comfortable or connected. These leaders may not see the value of creating a culture of belonging, so they delegate the responsibility for creating such a culture to the human resources department. Others believe they are doing the right thing by treating everyone in the company the same. As a result, these leaders often assume that every employee fits in and experiences a sense of connection and psychological safety within the organization. But creating a culture of belonging requires conscious effort on the part of every leader. To build a healthy organization with a strong culture of belonging, leaders must demonstrate commitment to both the organization and the team. When Leaders show up in this way, they make it clear to the teams and each member that they are valued. It is vital to demonstrate commitment and turn toward team members, even when things are not going well, or when a leader is trying to make a meaningful change, such as consciously creating a culture of belonging.

Affinity bias is the unconscious tendency each one of us have that attracts us towards people who are like us. It's easier to spend time with people who have similar interests, experiences, and backgrounds. As a result, our professional networks, the people we turn to for advice, professional development, and new opportunities tend to be very homogeneous. It takes more effort to build relationships with people who are different from us. But that is the only way to build a culture of belonging and to create sustainable change.

We are all subject to unconscious biases, underlying attitudes, thoughts, and beliefs, and even fears about other people or groups that impact our behavior. Some Leaders would think of people as robots often placing people in fixed frames. ‘They can do what they can do, they can’t do what they can’t do, and none of that will ever change’. But the truth is that people can grow dramatically, and so can leaders. When a leader puts people in frames, she assumes that the only ones who can reframe them is she herself. But all evidence shows that the capacity to reframe an essence of growth is in each one of us.

Click here for part2 of this article


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