Leading for the future: how has the pandemic changed those in charge?

In a world where change is the only constant, leaders must be authentic, tech-savvy and human. They have to prepare for the next crisis by empowering employees so their businesses are more agile and resilient

Be honest, how has the coronavirus pandemic changed you?

For most of us, it is only now – more than 18 months after the pandemic hit and as some semblance of normality returns – that we finally have the headspace to reflect properly on this question, answer it truthfully and inspect the mental scars, having been in survival mode for so very long.

Spare a thought, then, for business leaders who, alongside any personal struggles, have been forced to steer their organisations out of choppy waters while faced with cascades of disruption.

The list includes supply chain problems, geopolitical issues, increased pressure to recruit and retain top talent in the so-called ‘great resignation’ age, and the need to engage with a range of stakeholders to facilitate an accelerated digital transformation. They don’t teach this stuff at business school and many will have felt out of their depth, understandably.

The torrents of chaos have eroded everyone to a degree. And businesses and laggard leaders who have not kept up with the waves of change have, alas, been swept away. The response to Covid-19 necessitated the locking down of people, but paradoxically it opened minds. As a result, in the post-pandemic wash-up, the world looks and feels different. 

For instance, videoconferencing technology’s rapid advancement or adoption has enabled businesses to communicate to colleagues and customers, and somehow brought people closer together. Moreover, there is something thrillingly democratising about everyone having the same-size square box on Zoom, Teams or Google Meet, whether a chief executive or a 21-year old, fresh out of university.

New normal: mindset change required

Cybersecurity and global warming have leapfrogged other concerns for boards and consumers alike. In the afterglow of COP26, ‘ESG strategy’ has become a business buzzword, while actions and transparency speak louder than words. And as many are focused on the environment and governance, is the social element the squeezed middle?

As we tiptoe hopefully out of the worst of the coronavirus crisis, leaders have many important questions to answer. How will hybrid working actually work? What business models need evolving or binning? And, most fundamentally, in a world of constant change, how can greater agility and resilience be achieved?

“The US military phrase VUCA – an acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – captures the world in which we now operate,” says Alan Patefield-Smith, chief information officer of insurers Admiral Group. “Everyone has their favourite worry.”

Paul Szumilewicz, programme director for retail in continental Europe at HSBC, bristles at the concept of ‘resilience.’ He says: “What I’ve seen in the last few years, especially during the pandemic, is that ‘resilience’ is overrated. Too often, we have unrealistic expectations of people and particularly leaders.”

Szumilewicz argues that admitting “we don’t know the answer, but we are working on it” shows strength. “There is a positive shift in leaders to accept that being vulnerable makes us more real, more relatable,” he says.

Citing a 2017 Harvard Business Review paper, he continues: “The single biggest factor that triggers oxytocin [a hormone that plays a role in social bonding] in the brain at work is when a leader, manager or colleague shows vulnerability. Resilience is sometimes not as powerful as we think. Being honest about that can have an even more powerful impact.”

Invest in technology but don’t forget people

Simon Finch, supply chain director at Harrods, concedes that “there was a lot of scrambling around to make things work” when the coronavirus crisis and, more recently, Brexit fallout exposed operational weaknesses. He posits that businesses were “obsessed with making supply chains as lean as possible” before Covid, moving items around quickly, with minimal stock and expense. 

“Coronavirus completely screwed up that approach,” says Finch. “From now on, the supply chain must be more about agility, to cope with volatility and uncertainty, and less about being lean. However, that agility has to be fully supported by technology and data insights.” 

Technology alone, though, is not enough. If leaders fail to invest in their people, and that includes themselves, then the much-maligned skills gap will gape even wider. Consider the World Economic Forum estimates that technology will subsume 85m human jobs and 97m new roles will be created in just the next four years. As man, woman and machine work together, leaders should become less robotic and more human.

Indeed, according to Wayne Clarke, founding partner of the Global Growth Institute: “The most essential leadership trait of the 21st century, without a doubt, is empathy. The leaders with the most emotional intelligence will stand out. To better engage staff and improve the employee experience, the most critical question to ask is ‘How do you feel?’”

So go on, be honest.

This article was first published by Raconteur as part of a long-scroll project sponsored by Oliver Wight in November 2021

Published by

Oliver Pickup

Multi-award-winning writer, content editor, ghostwriter, and TV and radio commentator (and occasional illustrator), specialising in technology, blockchain, startups, business, sport and culture. Founder of Pickup Media Limited. Interviewer of death row prisoners, legendary athletes, influential leaders, tech trendsetters, and cultural pioneers. By-lined in every English newspaper. Contributor to dozens of multinational publications.

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