The events of 2020 taught us a great deal about our organizations, our people, and ourselves, and provided invaluable lessons to shape how we lead today and prepare our companies to emerge stronger and better equipped to confront future challenges. Ongoing reflection will enable us to carry learning forward and hone our leadership to unleash winning teams and catalyze innovation and growth beyond the crisis. The following actionable insights can help all of us in rethinking our role and reimagining our way of working.
Modeling Adaptability and Agility: Adaptable, agile leaders recognize that where there is change, there is an opportunity for collaboration, discovery, and value creation. Continually testing assumptions and assessing decision-making processes and outcomes, individuals exhibiting this flexible leadership style accept that change is the only constant and subscribe to an iterative strategy—creating a safe space for their teams to readily shift priorities and experiment in the wake of disruption.
The challenges of this past year highlighted the importance of adaptability and agility in particularly vivid ways, and the ability of organizations to transcend turbulence will continue to hinge on the capacity and willingness of leaders to model these critical skills. To promote adaptability and agility within your organization, start by clearing away blame and bureaucracy to respond to issues and opportunities quickly. Cultivate an environment where curiosity and innovation flourish by encouraging smart failure and rapid recovery. Foster a culture of real-time learning and empower your teams to adjust strategic imperatives and realign goals as needed to effectively advance your organization and grow sustainably in the new normal.
Communicating with Transparency to Build Trust: A recent study surveyed more than 25,000 employees globally to understand engagement, resilience, and the impact of the pandemic on the workplace in 2020. Among many findings, the ADP Research Institute revealed that the most powerful driver of both engagement and resilience is trust and that employees are better able to withstand workplace disruption when leaders provide straightforward and honest communication.
Ensuring transparency and regularly informing employees of organizational challenges, business stability, and the “why” behind critical decisions helps foster the understanding needed to overcome fear, adapt to changing circumstances, and move forward. As we continue to navigate this new world together, connect regularly with team members to ask questions, listen, validate where employees are and what they need, and respond in a meaningful way. Focus on opening an authentic dialogue—not on having all the answers—and keeping the conversation going. Doing so will strengthen trust among your employees, and in turn, boost engagement and resilience in the critical months ahead.
Embracing Soft Skills: There is nothing “soft” about the skills needed to lead people effectively through change and uncertainty. Soft skills—such as listening, building cooperative relationships, problem solving, and communicating effectively—have proven to be key in engaging remote teams and guiding employees through the corresponding shift in how team members connect and work together. Burnout is real from the prolonged stress of the pandemic, lost sense of control, and need to continually adapt to ever-evolving circumstances. Re-energizing and refocusing employees to stay the course will continue to require a high degree of sensitivity and emotional intelligence.
While empathy has always been essential in leadership, it has taken on greater meaning today as we continue to manage through the deeply felt and lasting impacts of COVID-19. Be forever mindful of the human side of change and emotion involved; embrace vulnerability and compassion as signs of strength, not weakness. Check in frequently: seek to understand team member perspectives and show genuine care and respect for their feelings. Relationships grow stronger when people feel heard, understood, and supported—so, too, do employee loyalty and performance.
Adopting a Flexible Approach to Planning and Execution: Leadership in uncertain times is about progress—not perfection—and having the courage to make bold decisions with limited information. Strategic planning in our current environment is a continuous learning activity where plans are regularly reassessed against short-term performance metrics and refined based upon results achieved.
Adopting a flexible approach to planning and execution has enabled leaders to respond quickly to new information and developing events as they happen and identify opportunities and immediate actions required for success now and longer term as they envision post-pandemic recovery and growth. As we continue to operate with imperfect information and multiple unknowns, draw upon the collective knowledge and experience of those around you and empower your people to make quick decisions and innovate, unleashing their creativity and channeling their energy where it matters most.
Creating a Compelling Narrative of the Future: Inspiring and mobilizing action through enduring disruption and ambiguity requires leaders to serve as a stabilizing force—providing realistic direction, aligning team focus, and rallying workers to adapt and thrive in a shifting landscape. Among many valuable lessons, the pandemic highlighted the critical importance of “owning the narrative” from the onset of crisis and employing authentic and inspirational communication to articulate a compelling vision offering hope and a path forward.
The continual reset of priorities and redirection of resources throughout recovery will provide ongoing opportunities for us to engage and deepen connections with our employees. Continue to be transparent about current realities and the unknown but be intentional about drawing employee focus to organizational strengths, post-pandemic renewal, and progress being made. Reinforce shared values and purpose at every turn and remind team members of their vital role in shaping a better future.
Which mindsets and behaviors served you, your team, and your organization well throughout 2020? What leadership deficits surfaced during this time? How would aligning leadership development with current and anticipated business needs better equip your organization to navigate future disruption and change?
DCG’s purpose—and promise—has always been to help leaders lead change, and it drives us now more than ever to support our colleagues, clients, partners, and friends in managing through the residual impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our team is with you on this journey, and we are here to help.