Rethinking leadership: Adapting to the 'new normal'
Neil Lloyd examines some of the lessons he has learned over the last 12 months, and looks at how leadership will have to change as we start to rebuild over the coming months.
We’ve all heard the conversations.
As there finally seems to be some light at the end of this darkest of tunnels, the talk of ‘returning to normal’ has grown and grown.
But let me be blunt with you.
The old world has gone. Things will never return to the way they were.
So, for anyone in a position of leadership, the challenge is not how to steer the ship back into old familiar waters, but to navigate a course towards the new horizons that are opening up.
Let’s start with some good news. There is much to be positive about in the way we have responded to the Covid crisis. We have been challenged in a way we could not have expected, and we have largely found answers.
Overcoming Covid-19 challenges
Think of the changes we have helped introduce in the last 12 months. Almost overnight many of us successfully switched our staff to working from home, with all the emotional and technological implications that brings. We’ve implemented the furlough scheme with almost no notice. We’ve evolved our internal communications and HR and personnel functions to combat the isolation and sense of detachment that comes with homeworking. As businesses, we’ve overcome the most extreme cashflow issues and sometimes had the most difficult of conversations with our colleagues.
All of this came out of a clear blue sky. Nobody had planned for it, nobody predicted it, nobody was prepared. And yet we have adapted, done what we had to do and, by and large, come through it.
And the fundamental principles of good leadership are what have stood us in good stead throughout.
Here at FBC Manby Bowdler, as soon as the restrictions were introduced, we took the time to ensure that we communicated to the wider team just what our plans were. Good internal communication is an essential part of any business that wants to take their staff with them and build the sort of powerful team ethic that can overcome even the toughest of challenges.
As the full scale and implications of the lockdown started to become clear, we again needed to respond. Working with the wider leadership team, I had to look at which members of staff would be furloughed, ensure those individuals understood the reasons why and also set about re-forecasting our financial plans and communicating them.
Effective leadership principles
Again, the leadership principles we followed through this process were those that had served us well during more favourable times. We talked to all the staff involved, involved them where we could in the process, explained the reasons for the decisions we were taking and treated everyone in exactly the same manner.
Throughout the lockdown period, I have continued to be transparent with everyone. We’ve issued all staff with weekly financial performance communications, quarterly leadership calls that cover a wider range of measures such as client satisfaction, debtor position and what other actions we’ve taken to protect cash flow, and ultimately communicated our thoughts about the long-term future of the firm.
Where some companies might seek to keep such information close to their chests, we believe our people are the reason for our success and therefore should be informed about, and involved in, decisions that will map out all our futures.
The need for understanding
Of course, as leaders we need to be empathetic, walking compassionately in the shoes of employees, customers, and their broader ecosystems.
But we also need to be level-headed and prepared to take the hard, rational, economic decisions necessary to protect the business for the future. We have not shied away from those difficult conversations when they have needed to be held — and in fact it would be worse for staff in the long run if we did so. What we have learned is that the openness, transparency and honesty in which we trusted prior to the pandemic remains critical to successfully leading a team in a time of crisis.
Agility has also been key to dealing with the last 12 months — and it is something that is now an essential part of any business and not just an optional extra.
This is not just a matter of technology either. For sure, we had invested in our equipment so that our team was able to pivot to remote working as efficiently as possible, but the human aspect of that agility has not been lost on us either.
This means recognising that working from home is different. That people respond in different ways to remote working and that uncertainty creates anxiety and stress. It is a folly to think that one size fits all when dealing with staff and never more so than in response to working from home. It’s been important to show real trust in our people and not fall into the trap that ‘out of sight is out of mind’ or that remote working is in some way the same as a day off.
Building emotional intelligence in dealing with people has been key to keeping a united team.
It also means being agile in our leadership. It’s easy to become wedded to plans that have taken a considerable time to draw up and fall into the sunk cost fallacy. We have had to learn to let go of the old certainties, make sure our thinking remains flexible and that the vision we have for our business is a vision for the world as it now is — and will be — rather than the comfortable world we once knew.
The very worst thing we can do as leaders is believe that we can carry on with business as usual.
There is every reason to now believe that the world of work that emerges over the next year or two will be significantly different to the one we were all used to.
It seems fair to assume that hybrid working patterns — with staff working in part at home and in part at the office — will become more widespread, that flexible working will increasingly become the norm, and that the wellbeing of our staff will continue to become ever-more important on the business agenda.
Think of some of the implications of that for your own business. You won’t have to think for long to realise they are many and varied — and likely to become more so as the months and years roll by.
So, a final thought for anyone facing up to the prospect of leading a team through these changing times: Embrace the unknown. The future is not yet written, and we cannot know what tomorrow will bring. Accept change, apply your best principles to guiding your business through it and be agile.
That way, as Captain Sir Tom Moore so beautifully said, tomorrow will be a good day.
Neil Lloyd is the Managing Director of FBC Manby Bowdler.