Leadership in a Post-Covid Era

When Covid hit, we were writing and talking about the “new normal” and that we were in, as William Bridges calls, the “neutral zone” leading to new beginnings. I referenced Bridges framework to help our clients understand what was going on in both their personal and professional lives. As the mask mandates continue to go away and we head back to work, it’s helpful for us as leaders to ponder the question of whether leadership has changed or perhaps not?

We have been asking ourselves the same question. Has anything changed permanently? Are we back to the old normal or is there really a new normal? To answer this question, we did a “lit search” to identify what is trending in the workplace – what people are talking about?  What will be the competencies, skills, practices that we need to embrace and develop to drive our success? Her research may surprise you. Top of the list? Empathic leadership.

#1: Empathic Leadership

Empathy and support of others continues to be on the top, particularly when the context in which people are working includes high levels of complexity, uncertainty, and change. I don’t know about you, but I think we can all agree that things have gotten more complex, uncertain, and unpredictable. One of the skills noted was the practice of curiosity – which is foundational to creating cultures of empathy.

Other findings showed that empathy is not only about emotional empathy (understanding the struggles, challenges of managing a home front on top of work), but empathy is also about cognitive empathy which is really about engaging others to help us see things differently. To help us view problems through a different lens, evaluate threats that we may not see, etc. Another practice to develop greater levels of empathic leadership included learning how to give direct, clear and constructive feedback while having a greater level of awareness in how the feedback is being received; and then making it safe for team members to have healthy debate in service to the best possible solution.

#2: Empowering Teams through Purpose and Clarity

Ranked as #2 is leading in a way that empowers teams by having a clear purpose (why we’re doing what we’re doing) and being clear on expectations. The ability to communicate clear expectations and link those expectations to why they are important is key. Another practice that showed up is the team leader’s ability to communicate the value proposition underlying the work that is being done to ultimately inspire, energize, and create a sense of pride. This last practice was a big driver of engagement and increased performance.

#3: Developing Resilient Organizations

Coming in at #3 was resilience. Given all that we’ve been through, this is not a big surprise. What surfaced was the importance of leaders managing their own stress and adapting to challenging, “overloaded” environments. For this to happen, leaders need to increase their levels of self-awareness, so they are more aware of when they kick into overdrive and/or demonstrate reactive tendencies. Another aspect of developing resilience was connected to the leader’s ability to balance optimism and realism while acknowledging challenges and focusing on where the business is going.

And so, as we continue our journey into this new normal, we all need to step back and evaluate what we need to do differently. Perhaps our pre-pandemic leadership playbooks may need to have a few pages added.

Structurally Refocusing To Overcome Busyness

First, a tired but true acknowledgment: This year has been hard. We’ve adapted to tough circumstances despite profound losses. And yet, I feel a sense of hope as vaccines make their rounds and we inch towards a life free of COVID-19’s burdens. Things are looking up.

Yet organizations are still very much in the residual shadows of the virus. Perhaps physical offices are reopening, but a palpable uncertainty remains. Employees are jittery about the economy and the status of their jobs. What will the post-COVID work environment look like? Perhaps most importantly, leaders are uncertain how to effect positive change. Indeed, change is a tough pitch at a time when “normalcy” is basically all we’ve wanted for the last 13 months.

When employees and leaders are burdened by uncertainty and doubt, they usually fall back on a harried form of busyness without purpose. Leaders focus on “urgent” but not important items. The days feel full but directionless. If this sounds familiar, you’re in good company. But it’s time to structurally refocus.

Most organizations have finalized their strategic plan for the upcoming year and have identified their strategic goals or, what Jim Collins has aptly named, their “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” (“BHAGs”). As the phrase implies, these BHAGs can be intimidating, and because they have longer timelines, they often get lost in the day-to-day.  Before you launch into Q2, it’s time to do a strategic reset and reintroduce structure to help you focus.

Step 1: Do a Mental Download

I suggest blocking out some time and writing down everything floating around in your head on sticky notes (a Word doc works too).

Step 2: Apply a Structural Approach To Help You Organize

Then, zoom out and implement an objective-based structure. I recommend adopting the “OKR” methodology championed by John Doerr in his book, Measure What Matters. Here are the basics: Identify your Objective, which is “what” you and/or your team want to achieve. You may have multiple objectives that support your larger BHAG. Once your Objective is identified, then shift your focus to the Key Results, which are “specific, time-bound, and measurable” progress markers for achieving your Objectives. Here’s an example: 

BHAG: Become a more customer-driven organization

Objective 1: Use data-driven insights to better understand the customer’s voice

Key Results: 

  • Sales to conduct 25 interviews with accounts that we have lost in the past 12 months
  • Marketing to launch a customer pulse survey to over 1,000 end-users
  • Senior team to conduct five in-depth meetings with members of our customer advisory board

Objective 2: Increase sales revenue by 15% in Q4

Key Results: 

  • Hire 7 new sales reps for the sales team by the end of Q2
  • Generate 10K leads and convert 35% into new sales opportunities by the end of Q3
  • Reduce closed/lost opportunities from 100 to 25

Step 3: Try to Place Your To-Do’s into the BHAG Framework

See if you can place your sticky notes (or copy and paste your Word bullets) into the BHAG and OKR structure identified above. If you find it hard to place your to-do’s within the framework, you may have fallen prey to busyness without direction.

So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed or have lost sight of the bigger picture, see if you can brain dump, zoom out, and structurally refocus. You will end your week with a greater purpose and focus for what matters.