By: Suzanne Bates and Roanne Neuwirth

The COVID-19 Pandemic has changed the way our organizations work and transformed the way we are leading. The changes go far beyond managing remote work, pivoting to consumer demand, and innovating new products and services. Every CEO we speak with has felt a shift in what it means to lead.

How will we take the silver lining lessons of leadership into 2021? We recently completed a workplace trends survey examining trends in the work we do and how we do it. We asked participants at every level in a multitude of industries how they are achieving innovation, managing collaboration, and transforming to a culture of greater inclusion and belonging.

Based on responses of more than 300 participants, we analyzed the results to find 7 priorities we believe are critical for C-Suite leaders to help lead their organizations through the close of this long pandemic and into a future that is both exciting, and unknown.

1.  Fill the innovation gap. Capitalize on the creativity and productivity that came from this past year to ramp up innovation capabilities.

Good news coming out of our research is people felt more creative and better able to collaborate during 2020, even working remotely. At the same time, innovation was more challenging, suggesting people are talking but not always finding the path to doing things differently and better. Heading into 2021, CEOs need to attend to creating the culture, tools and ways of working that support new thinking and new approaches. In the coming year teams will need to be more intrapreneurial, and better equipped to reimagine, reinvent, and solve business and customer challenges. (Learn more about what it takes to lead innovation here.)

2.  Make decision-making a team superpower. Identify what made you good at making faster, better decisions so that you can sustain these capabilities going forward.

Our survey confirmed people were able even in the mostly virtual environment to increase focus and collaboration to make better, and faster, decisions. This was in response to the urgency of the times. It bodes well for those leaders who take the opportunity to ask, learn and replicate how their teams were able to improve their decision making and continue to build and flex those muscles next year. (Read more about how to lead your team to improve their decision-making abilities here.)

3.  Keep the empathy train going. Leaders who are now attuned to the challenges their teams face need to remain as caring and interested in people as they are right now.

We saw in the research clear indications of greater kindness and compassion in the workplace during the pandemic. Leaders placed a high priority on their employees’ well-being and showed concern and humility. This new basis for goodwill could be threatened if leaders don’t understand the value it is creating. Leaders have new credibility as human beings, creating a foundation for a permanent culture of caring. There are also some danger signs as we see in the research these feelings of connection and engagement drop off significantly with non-managerial workers, those on the front line, compared to their more senior leaders. The simple lesson? Connect with employees to energize and inspire them for the coming year. (This post gives you ideas about how to stay connected with your team, even when you’re busy.)

4.  Gather data to fuel the train. Take the pulse of the front line more often to make sure you have an accurate view of what they are thinking and feeling.

One way to be more in touch and empathetic is to take steps to gather and heed data on the pulse of the organization. These surveys are often treated as less important but learning how engaged people are is the first step to reaching them in a meaningful way. As you move down the ranks, people feel less connection and engagement right now. This is a blind spot for many leaders, and with remote work becoming a part of life even after the pandemic, that blind spot could grow. Make sure you are systematically reviewing, analyzing, and creating meaning from pulse data and reward leaders who act on the feedback.

5.  Showcase the path to success. Make the link between your optimism and the company’s success crystal clear, every day.

Executive leaders are generally very optimistic about their companies’ futures. They also express clarity about the strategy, and confidence in their ability to communicate and execute. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that in reviewing responses from managers and individual contributors, optimism and clarity are not as strong. Leaders are working every day to plan the future, but the plans are not always clear or well understood the further away you get from the C-Suite. People need to understand the plan and feel what you feel – why you are optimistic about the strategy and opportunities ahead. Taking time and communicating effectively will energize the people who need to execute the plan. Make communication the center of your job as a leader, and don’t reserve these conversations for annual strategy meetings.

6.  Amplify the voice of your “concrete middle.” Actively bring your middle managers into the tent to mobilize the organization to execute on the strategy.

One of the most significant findings of our research was the challenge that the non-executive leaders – the middle managers – have been facing. Almost across the board, this group provided more negative responses than those at the executive level, and even at the front line, individual contributor level. They are getting squeezed by the challenges of communicating, collaborating, and engaging, and are the least confident about where the enterprise is going. Now is the time to bring this group of next generation leaders more explicitly into the conversation on how the enterprise is going to execute on the strategy and what it will take to get there. It will get you further, faster. (For some tips on how to help get your team leaders to work together with more clarity so you can get work done, click here.)

7.  Deliver a culture of acceptance. Set the example and hold your leaders accountable for creating an environment where all can freely share personal concerns and challenges.

Our research confirmed what many of us have felt: the last year significantly increased people’s feelings of anxiety, depression, and concern about the future. This was true at all levels in the organization. Overall, people experienced increased kindness and compassion, which may be helping to offset feelings of helplessness and worry. Still, leaders should know that people want to be able to safely share their situations and challenges. We found most on the front line still believe it is not acceptable to open up or that it is dependent upon your individual boss. This highlights the urgency and imperative to foster a workplace where all employees can share, regardless of who they work for, or their role.

We have learned a lot about leadership this past year, and these are lessons we can take to heart as we become the leaders we want to be and create the organizations we aspire to have. Focus on these 7 priorities to get your workplace culture aligned to seize the opportunity with gusto and focus.




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