Leadership in unprecedented times
With all eyes on them at this time, company leaders should choose compassion, calmness and honesty in their communications to overcome the challenges of remote working and external downbeat news-flow.
“It’s all about leadership right now. People are looking to management for signs of concerns, signs of stress, just trying to interpret any signal they can,” says Andrew Priest, Partner at Inflexion. For this reason, now more than ever, leaders ought to project resolute stoicism, exuding calm and control despite what may be occurring beneath the surface.
“With so many unknowns and with the workforce working remotely, we are unable to exert as much control as we are used to. But what we can control is our reactions to things, and it’s important that leaders choose their responses carefully.”
This calm should not belie the urgency of the moment though; honesty is paramount.
When so much is happening, it’s better to spread responsibility across a wider group as this enables people to focus on a smaller number of things. Andrew explains this, citing examples from his own team as well as within the Inflexion portfolio: “One person could be responsible for keeping track of government initiatives and they remain the point of contact for PAYE, tax, furloughs. We’ve also seen an example where one person is responsible for managing certain information flows. Other companies have set up a sub-committee below the board level which enables the CEO to delegate some tasks, usually around information gathering. This ensures senior management has this information available to inform their decision making.” These lines of responsibility need to be effectively communicated throughout the team, with each member feeling empowered and trusted to work towards the company aims.
On the financial side it’s about making sure you have the right short-term KPIs and that you’re tracking them. “They won’t necessarily be the same as before, they need to be realistic and reviewed daily. Cashflows should also be monitored ever more closely.”
This shorter-term goal-setting needs to be reflected on the people side of things, too. “You need a management contingency plan: what happens if someone falls ill, or if they need to step away to look after a family member? You need to think about employees as well, who are harder to monitor when working remotely. Are they productive, engaged and happy? Throughout all of this, it’s about remembering the human side of it.”
A so-called ‘wizardry of technology’ as Boris Johnson coined it has enabled remote working, and cast a positive light on the impact digital can have on companies. “I’ve seen a big shift in tech adoption that I thought would take months, but it’s taken a week,” Andrew says, pointing to the uptake of software such as Teams or Zoom and CRM systems. “Companies will only realise the productivity improvements that have happened over the coming years. But there are already some real positives and that may continue.”
And while most decisions being taken now are focusing on the urgency of the situation, it’s important to remember that decisions you make now don’t just affect the business during the crisis – it informs sentiment and success in the longer-term, too
Stakeholder relations are impacted by your actions today. People – both customers and staff – will look back at the decisions and actions of management, and it will strongly influence relationships between management and employees and company and clients.
While we don’t know when it will be or precisely what shape it will take, preparing for the eventual upturn is crucial for a business’s growth. “You need to maintain the muscle of the business so that you can act swiftly when the exit does come.”
For now that means small steps, such as daily calls with staff, chatting about actions you’ve discussed with groups, sharing ideas, talking to customers and news people have heard. “Get people working on a few things that have some near-term benefits. Then you should be able to emerge from this stronger.”
Communicating is a two-way street
It is crucial that trust runs through the company structure, both upwards and downwards, and that communication is frequent and compassionate. “Nowadays the leadership team must demonstrate good behaviour and communication skills in this new and virtual world because no one has done it before. This means daily communications from middle and senior management,” says Andrew. And this information flow and openness ought to be two-way: “Sometimes in hierarchies you get a lot of communications pushed down, but not the opportunity for employees to ask questions upwards. They need to feel they can put their hands up and be heard.”
It needn’t be all business chat, either. With everyone seeing their homes become their offices and their outings curtailed, it is important to maintain the social aspect of work. Andrew says one of his colleagues is tasked with running social boards and virtual drinks. “It helps keep the team feeling connected and fosters camaraderie, which teams need to thrive.”