What constitutes a good leader? What constitutes a good leader during a crisis? Those who are ‘led’ may have different needs, opinions, and perceptions in response to those questions. Back in March, I thought, how do we get through the next few weeks? Now, almost 8 months later, I realize that was the wrong question. With the benefit of hindsight, I would have asked different questions and made many different decisions.
So much of what we did at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was react, try not to overreact, and survive. Goals, plans, and strategies fell off the radar. Reflecting upon my own leadership, there have been some good moments and some moments where I fell short. I came out strong in the beginning, responding and assessing. But now, as time passes and the fatigue and heightened uncertainty persists, I find myself contemplating: What now? How do we evolve into the right success model for us, our clients, and partners? This can be exasperating. I give us all a pass as this is truly a first for all of us and we did so much right. We found the strengths needed to get this far.
While not a new lesson, a strength that has carried many is empathy. Empathy has never been more important. People are worried about their health; they need safety. Working parents are stressed; they need accommodation. People are working differently; they need guidance. The nation is struggling with unrest; they need unbiased support. Then there is the big etcetera—as needs are evolving. So I ask: As our current state shifts to what we now perceive as more normal, what should we, as leaders, be doing?
In talking to our clients, they have learned that there are leadership skill gaps within their organization, and empathy and emotional intelligence are high on the list. In times of uncertainty, it is critical to relate to people and their work processes. They learned that the leadership pipeline is thinning as people make decisions on how and if they will work. Those nearing retirement contemplate retiring before planned rather than bear the risk of becoming ill due to the virus. A money-over-health decision appears straightforward. They learned that there is a systemic misunderstanding of diversity and inclusion and that deliberate and intentional culture change is needed.
How long have we been talking about the future of work and upskilling and reskilling, and what kind of leader will be most successful in navigating the challenge? Who knew a global pandemic would be the impetus to consider that challenge? Our team has been having planning sessions. This is another area where leaders deserve a pass. “Planning in a Pandemic” sounds like a great title for a new book but it is yet another area that is not quite prescriptive. Remember when we would participate in exercises to envision the possibilities in an organization and then do a practicality assessment…not once did we envision a “cannot do” because of a pandemic. But, now is the time to plan for our new age of work and the unknowns that tag along…it is here. We cannot stop developing future leaders, enabling career management, fostering culture change and discovery because we are remote or have physical restrictions.
To create the new work model, we still need people, process and technology. The latter is advancing and, through the last year, we are becoming more adept at using technology to get things done. This has been on a modest scale, mostly communications, transactional processing, and operations management, but there is so much more to come in terms of automation. As we anticipate the extensiveness of these advancements, we are developing a better idea of leadership profiles and the requisite skills needed to lead us to the future.
To satisfy the skill gap, many organizations consider the build or buy equation. That’s a tough formula to solve if you do not know your variables. Now is probably the best time to assess your team and evaluate organizational skills against stopgap and longer-term needs. Business continuity stabilizes the organization while building permanence enables the future. The build or buy conclusion is easier to resolve if you understand the depth of your talent gaps. The fundamental decision to invest in building organizational leadership from within while buying niche and gap talent seems to be a reasonable answer for many companies, at least those with whom we are working.
Too many companies put the brakes on talent development. While this may have been prudent months ago, time is now of the essence. Working from home is here for a while and, in some instances, here to stay. Companies should not abdicate their responsibility to advance and empower employee development. It will look different: virtual breakout rooms, telephonic, self-paced. It will also look the same: engagement, empowerment, inclusion, and advancement.
Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th U.S. president, said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” If putting the brakes on development was the wrong thing, now is the time to right the wrong. Employees’ expectations have not changed, only where and how they work has changed. It is time to meet them where they are and provide personal and organizational development.
There is still a war for talent. People are finding new positions. We know the competitiveness of securing talent will increase. We know leadership and culture are an employee flight vulnerability. It is time to take a hard look at all talent strategies, including: flexible work programs, compensation and benefit strategies; different levels of mentoring and coaching programs; facilitated and e-learning; culture and change management; diversity, equity and inclusion progression; career mobility and management; and above all, make communications often, transparent and accessible. Remember: the worst thing you can do is nothing.
What is the answer to the questions: What constitutes a good leader? What constitutes a good leader during a crisis? Theodore Roosevelt said it: The best thing you can do is the right thing. It satisfies both questions.