By Chris Parke, CEO, Talking Talent
Everything has taken a hit in 2020. Nothing has gone unscathed or unchanged – and the same goes for leadership. From boardrooms to living rooms, meeting rooms to spare rooms, leadership has moved away from face-to-face interactions to digital communications. Meanwhile, forward-thinking initiatives, spurred on by continuing diversity imbalances and widening gender pay gaps, have been put on hold. Following government guidance, only half of businesses published their 2018-19 gender pay gap report – which could reportedly push gender equality back a whole generation. We are risking losing sight of what’s important to us – and unless we’re intentional about how we make systemic, much-needed organisational changes, they’re not going to happen if we only focus on more ‘critical’ things, or keeping the lights on.
Alongside a clarion call for businesses to push on with these initiatives – as a must-have, rather than a nice-to-have – is the equally important call for a new style of leadership. In my view, leaders started off with IQ – an intelligence quotient – then we moved onto EQ, an emotional quotient. Then we hit the 2008 recession and resilience was key – calling for RQ, or the resilience quotient – but today we need a new intelligence: a care quotient (CQ), which encapsulates self-care, other care, and simply giving a damn.
How lockdown has changed leadership
When lockdown hit, the world changed in a matter of days – and so did work. As teams went from being in the office to working from home, all the workplace elements that people enjoy – banter, chatting over making a coffee – disappeared in an instant, and finding ways to replicate that team feel and connection has been challenging. So too for leaders. Not being able to see people’s body language – barring what you can observe through a 22-inch screen – and missing in-person catch-ups has meant a huge change in how people have been able to lead. It’s created a new imperative for leaders to be even more inclusive – and push forward where it really matters, even when in survival mode.
With many leaders forced to think just about surviving, and maintaining revenue levels, it’s naturally pushed elements like inclusion initiatives lower down leaders’ to-do lists and priorities. But now, it’s becoming a danger that leaders will no longer have budgets to invest in these important measures – like coaching and development – which aren’t just a nice to have, but are of vital importance.
Paradoxically, over the weeks that we’ve all been in lockdown, I’ve seen managers and leaders be a lot closer to their teams than they have been in months, even years. They’ve also had to connect with people on a far more human and individual level. In essence, there has been a swing towards leaders and managers being more inclusive without intentionally doing it. Now, we need to think about maintaining that beyond COVID – and also consider what we’ve learned from it.
The importance of authentic leadership
Lockdown has revealed two stark examples of how people react to perceptions of poor leadership: Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. From the response to Johnson’s perceived mis-management of the coronavirus outbreak in the UK, and the ongoing discreditation of Trump’s presidential style, the country-wide backlash to these two leaders has resulted in a lack of faith and belief in them. It’s also shown what we really need – on a smaller scale, in the workplace – from those who lead.
We’ve seen how well our clients have been able to cope with coronavirus-related business uncertainty where teams and functions have been and are being led by inclusive leaders – those who bring to the table an understanding of importance around wellbeing, engagement and longing. Stark differences in this style of leadership are only being highlighted in lockdown. But it’s also lockdown where this new style of leadership has been born, in seeing leaders show a high care quotient – with inclusive leaders communicating more authentically, and asking people about themselves and their personal positions. This includes being aware of people’s pressure points – which are so easy to forget in the office when everyone leaves for the day, and much easier to remember when you can see people’s set-ups on camera, and hear their children in the background. Lockdown has also enabled leaders to show their own vulnerability – which doesn’t always come naturally – and in that way it has been a great leveller. Above all, remote working has highlighted the need to create a sense of belonging and community and build inclusive cultures. Now is not the time to cut back; now’s the time to dial up.
The next stage of COVID-19 will be the shift through the change curve – as shops reopen and offices think about welcoming people back, some people will experience real sense of grief and loss as a result – the people who have been enjoying seeing more of their family, or not having to commute, or travel regularly. And then there will be the people who are excited about going back to work – but are uncertain about how a phased return and social distancing measures will change their office. And with nearly all – 93% – of employees being stressed about returning to office post-lockdown, what is certain is that there will be pain in reintegration. Here, true inclusivity can help mitigate that pain, and enable leaders to learn from it. Previously, the majority of businesses weren’t interested in remote working, nor making it a viable offering for the majority of its workers. But lockdown has changed all that. Now, leaders must focus on deliverables – not the way of working. Especially as it’s what the next generation wants – the generation that will start dominating the workplace more and more.
Let’s not backslide to our old ways
As businesses – many of whom have had to make tough financial decisions in lockdown – re-balance, leaders must also be considerate – and intentional – when addressing any necessary cost-cutting issues borne out of the pandemic. A lot of companies who are looking at redundancies will, whilst claiming to be focusing on promoting senior females and supporting BAME people, let those very people be the first to go. It’s a conversation that’s become even more crucial to have around the recent Black Lives Matter movement – these are considerations that simply can’t be ignored.
One of the things observed during the last financial crisis was the impact that it had on under-represented groups and women – who were both far more impacted concerning redundancies (whether planned or voluntary). This presents a real danger for organisations who, if they make the wrong choices, or react in a kneejerk fashion, could lose a decade’s worth of work and progress in a matter of weeks or months. Therefore, though it’s going to be normal – and necessary – for most organisations to restructure to some degree as a result of COVID-19, must recognise that certain sectors will be particularly impacted, and do all they can to combat that. They must also understand the importance of having diverse experiences, skill sets and points of view around the table. There is no way of knowing what the next six-12 months will hold for any of us – and businesses will need to be reactive. Those that have diverse teams, all feeding in, all contributing, will be able to pivot well.
COVID-19 has shifted all of our priorities – and the companies that get things right – by having a diverse team, in having the right working set-ups, and by prioritising what’s important – stand to emerge from it all the stronger. After all, it’s going to become more important for people to be in an organisation that cares and champions them. Therefore, we need an evolution of leadership in the leaders of today; whether they are running a team, a company, or a country, all leaders must practice and preach inclusion with purpose. Not only that, but they must lead with a high care quotient – otherwise the people they lead will stop caring about them, and the company they work for. And that will be worse for business than coronavirus.