Covid-19, supply issues, energy prices...wtf?
Are recent events a catalyst for real leadership change?
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” So said the late, great Albert Einstein, a creative genius committed to shaking up the status quo.
While doing the same thing on repeat is a trap many leaders have fallen into, now more than ever we can see the resulting insanity. Covid-19, increasing financial pressure on consumers, escalating conflict and the environmental crisis have certainly shaken things up for decision makers. With the nature of leadership fundamentally altered, can we really expect to continue delivering the same models and theories? Isn’t it time our businesses and those at the top challenged the insanity and changed course to guarantee survival?
People are looking for us to do something different
If recent global events have taught us anything it’s that employees want a different relationship with their employers in the same way customers want a greater degree of autonomy and choice in how they access products and services, especially at a time when prices are soaring and demand outstrips supply.
With the world telling us that we need to rethink how we ethically and sustainably market and sell, I believe we also need to radically rethink leadership and executive development at the same time. To not do so would be at best a wasted opportunity and at worst, signing our leaders up to fall on their own swords at the very moment they’re likely to be experiencing a crisis of confidence or a challenge to their credibility.
What are we getting wrong?
A recent chat with a Chief People Officer perfectly illustrates why rethinking leadership is so important. Within her highly technical business, a large proportion of the 1000 or so engineers employed might best be described as introverted. With a preference for order, they arrived at the same time each morning, ate the same breakfast alongside the same colleagues in the staff canteen, and continued their days in the same structured fashion. After the first Covid lockdown, the CFO convinced the CEO that the temporary work-from-home situation made financial sense and should become permanent. Without consultation, a decision was made, subsequently trickling down to unsuspecting managers. Who were most affected? The introverted employees who, without structure to their days, became invisible. Emails and calls went unanswered. Productivity started to dip. Sickness went through the roof.
So, what are the key take-aways from this leadership blunder?
1. Approaching a unique and unpredictable situation with typical leadership thinking is to underestimate the compound nature of unknown variables coming together at once.
2. Leaders can’t continue to operate in isolation, believing their decisions are for the greater good and therefore not worthy of scrutiny.
3. There’s a fine line between thinking and acting – believing everything you read on Linkedin about people wanting to work from home isn’t a reason to assume YOUR people want to or will work better in that environment.
How can you do things differently and challenge the insanity of doing the same thing over and over within your own business? If you’re in crisis management mode, make critical business savings by picking the low hanging fruit. Using the example above, this would be a case of encouraging working from home for those who are keen but allowing your employees to choose rather than dictating to them.
Take time to engage with the employee experience and manage relationships. Don’t get internal comms to send a round robin email asking for people’s preferences. Pick up the phone and make calls; talk to those you don’t normally chat to; find out what they really need. Focus on making employees feel like valued humans: call without an agenda or a specified timeframe (you’re not a GP with a 10-minute slot). Help them navigate the complexity of these times with gracious leadership.
Get over yourself
As the example of the introverted employees shows, it pays to be mindful of assumptions in leadership. While I’m a great believer in gut instinct, it’s no good generalising and acting without evidence. Every leader has to accept that they don’t know everything – the sooner they stop believing they do, the quicker they’ll bust through the insanity and experience meaningful change.
In the meantime, enjoy shaking up the status quo.