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The Paradox of Leadership After COVID-19

A businessman wearing a surgical mask while talking on the phone.

​Leaders have always had to balance the immediate short-term needs of the business with the long-term strategies and vision. This paradox of leadership is especially true as companies recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Leaders need to not only formulate return-to-work plans and adjust work processes for the short-term recovery of operations but also discern what longer-term impacts this pandemic will have overall.

SHRM Resource Spotlight
Coronavirus and COVID-19

Short-Term Tactics

Right now, organizations are focused on how to return to a reasonable level of work as states begin to allow for more business operations. One method for this formulation is scenario planning.

"Leaders need to spend time on scenario planning," said Brian Heger, head of strategic workforce planning and talent at Bristol-Myers Squibb in New York City. "First, identify plausible but uncertain future scenarios. Then assess the likelihood of each and identify signals about which scenario will emerge. Plan the impacts from each scenario and develop responses for each, ranging from financial to operations to talent. By thinking this through ahead of time, organizations will be better prepared to bounce back."

Dale Rose, president of 3D Group, a feedback company in Emeryville, Calif., thinks this is the right time to focus on leadership development.

"Now is exactly the time to double down on executive coaching to help leaders navigate through the storm," Rose said. "Organizations should be monitoring the performance of leaders very closely for who is doing well and who is struggling. You may find some weak spots, but you may find strength where you didn't expect it."

While all leaders are trying to determine which effects from the pandemic are temporary and which are true business shifts, Ira Bedzow, UNESCO chair in bioethics at New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y., reminds leaders to not forget the basics: deep thinking, listening and communicating the vision.

"Take some time every day to think broadly of the social implications of the new normal and not simply the immediate financial ones," Bedzow said. "Keep an ear to all levels of the organization. Those closer to implementation may have a better sense of how to adapt. Remember that your people must continue to follow if you are to lead successfully. Give them a vision of the future that they can believe in and give them a sense of confidence that you will guide them toward it."

Long-Term Business Shifts

In conjunction with immediate planning, leaders need to determine which changes to the business landscape are permanent and how their organization can adapt and thrive. Predictions about future trends are wide-ranging, but there is agreement that remote work will stay at an increased level. This allows operations to function with less office space and be less location dependent but may place more stress on balancing work and personal life for employees.

According to Stephen J. Taddie, managing partner at Stellar Capital Management LLC in Phoenix, many firms will increase technology usage and find they can leverage a smaller staff to handle more business.

"As the recovery ensues, re-employment will likely be slower than the workforce would like, but output per hour could be set for huge improvement, helping companies repair balance sheets a bit faster than past recoveries," Taddie said. "Education and technology capabilities will be even more of a differentiator than in the past."

The increased use of technology will include more artificial intelligence and contingent workers, Heger said. "Organizations will focus employees on work that truly requires creativity and critical thinking as they relook at how work gets done on a larger scale. This will require investments in reskilling and upskilling as demand for new ways of working will need new skills to adapt to this environment."

The makeup of the workforce in general will see some large shifts, according to Rose.

"The service sector will be decimated, which will make available a large volume of talent who may not have all the relevant skills," Rose said. "Companies who are best at onboarding and upskilling these workers will gain a huge competitive advantage. The war for talent will continue as there are still shortages of skilled workers, especially those who are digitally proficient. Digital proficiency just got 10 times more valuable and 10 times more important because, out of necessity, the knowledge-based workforce is learning to leverage more digital tools than ever before and is therefore rapidly increasing its skillset even further."

Rose added that the pandemic may accelerate the silver tsunami of retirements of senior leaders, requiring younger employees to take on leadership roles.

Peter Navin, CHRO of Grand Rounds Inc., a health care company in San Francisco, sees the virtual revolution impacting employee benefits as well.

"Access to health care will change, which will have an impact on the larger business landscape," Navin said. "Investments in certain resources for employees, particularly as it relates to virtual care options, will undoubtedly rise in priority."

Employee well-being will also become more of a top priority for organizations. Heger advised that companies will need to determine strategies to foster well-being while driving productivity and performance.

The future of work has encapsulated a variety of trends from artificial intelligence to the war for talent to upskilling, Heger said. While these trends were moving prior to COVID-19, this pandemic has catapulted organizations of all sizes into the future faster, practically overnight. He stressed that this test can be an opportunity to emerge stronger and better prepared to meet future challenges and opportunities. 

Deborah Stadtler is managing editor at SHRM's Executive Network, HR People + Strategy.


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