Can leaders bottle what they’ve learned in lockdown?

Our latest round table was all about what being the boss looks like in this brave new world. 

We were joined by two insiders - Suzy Truckle, head of talent and leadership at Dixons Carphone, and Miguel Premoli, one of Walgreen Boots Alliance’s VPs of HR. And one expert observer – Joan O’Connor, executive coach at Think Purple. 

From the sound of it, lots of us are seeing positive new leadership styles shine through in this crisis. The trickier part is going to be making these good habits stick.

The best leaders right now are comfortable with ambiguity

As a manager, it’s easy to put pressure on yourself to be omniscient: we think our teams will have confidence in us if we always have the answers. But realistically, that’s impossible at the best of times, and even more so today. If heads of state don’t know when (and if) ‘normal’ life will resume, then of course you can’t tell your people what the exact plan is for the first quarter of 2021 – but nobody’s expecting you to.

‘Some people are stepping up,’ Miguel mused. ‘But others are stepping down.’ 

The ones stepping up are those people who are ‘comfortable with ambiguity’ and willing to say ‘I don’t know’. And that’s not everyone: the people stepping down are the ones who’re lost for words without the safety and structure of targets, forecasts and three-year plans. As one of our attendees said, the past three months have felt like one big assessment centre to help us spot these two different breeds of leader.

Because even when the future isn’t clear, your communication can be

You need a party line, and you need it fast. At Dixons Carphone, Suzy told us about the company’s ‘Big Three’ priorities: the three things the CEO’s talking about in every company-wide email and update. ‘Keeping our colleagues safe; helping our customers; securing our future.’ 

‘He’s making it completely clear that all we need to do right now as a team is focus on these three things’, said Suzy.

It’s easy for your employees to start feeling like headless chickens as their colleagues get furloughed and the business starts working in new ways. Crystal-clear criteria like the Big Three help them stay focussed: ‘actually, maybe I shouldn’t be working on those things that don’t directly support the priorities.’

Can’t decide what to say? 

Well first, learn to listen.

Another trait of leaders who seem to be getting it right is their tendency to listen. A lot of Joan’s clients have parents on their teams – ones who’re juggling working and teaching from home. ‘“What do you need? How are you getting on? How can we support you?” That’s where the conversation should begin.’ (Not ‘here’s our company policy on the matter’.)

Suzy reiterated the point: ‘With leaders working from home, they don’t always know how it feels on the ground. So they have to listen to the teams in our stores and distribution centres to really understand things.’

And that’s just one way our virtual offices have become more democratic

So yes, the right answer can come from anywhere, but on top of that, as Miguel said: ‘everyone has the same space on the screen.’

We’re all seeing each other’s messy living rooms; we’ve all got kids, partners, dogs or building work in the background. ‘Authentic leadership’ is a buzzword that’s been bouncing around the HR world for a few years now – turns out, all it took was a global pandemic to make it reality. Stripped of polish and corner offices, leaders have no choice but to be their authentic selves. Zoom calls: the great 21st-century leveller.

So now, we all just need to keep up the good work

Your teams might be asking when things will go ‘back to normal’, but Joan reckons they won’t. At the very least, home working’s here to stay.

And what about the emphasis on mental health and wellbeing? Our panel mentioned several leaders who’ve been role-modelling good behaviours recently: updating their shared calendar to show when they’re taking care of the kids, or sending an out-of-office explaining that they’re off duty for the rest of the day. Will leaders hold on to these healthy habits as the months roll on?

Well, status-quo bias suggests we’re all loath to change when we’ve got used to something. 

So fingers crossed this new breed of leaders – who’re as comfortable in the unknown as they are in their own skin, and happy to let everyone have a say – become the fabled new normal too.

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