Dr Simon Hayward, CEO of Cirrus and author of The Agile Leader, discusses how leaders can switch to remote leading during an unprecedented and critical time.
In November Boris Johnson experienced first-hand what managers around the country have been grappling with for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Forced into self isolation, the prime minister was leading the UK via video screen while he self isolated in his flat at 10 Downing Street. For someone used to attending meetings and briefings in person, it was probably quite the shift.
Without the social cues of body language and informal chatter, it is hard to ‘read the room’ when leading from isolation. The blurring of boundaries can take a strain on a leader’s mental wellbeing, and it is hard to stay visible when your only communication is through a computer screen.
How can leaders who have been used to face-to-face contact switch to leading remotely, particularly at critical times?
If, like Boris, you’ve suddenly been forced to self-isolate, this can be very disruptive. But disruption is something we can embrace. We have to shift gear, change the way we make decisions, speeding up rather than trying to slow down. For many leaders this requires a new, more agile mindset, one which seeks ways to accelerate velocity while remaining focused.
That is harder in practice than it is to say. Challenge slow decision making. To encourage intelligent risk taking in teams, ask, ‘How quickly can we do it well?’, rather than focusing on the risks and taking the safe route while competitors speed past.
Johnson has demonstrated on many occasions that he is happy for colleagues to step in, lead briefings and deliver key messages. At times he has been criticised for it.
Whatever your views on this, it is certainly the case that many leaders find it difficult to let go so others can take responsibility and act with autonomy. However, it’s very hard to retain a command-and-control style of leadership when you’re leading remotely.
The hierarchical resistance from many leaders to changing ways of working has been overwhelmed by the reality of COVID. The rapid and widespread shift to remote working has had a dramatic impact on our organisations and the role leaders play. During 2020 we have seen that we can quickly sweep away long-held beliefs and assumptions.
If you have struggled to devolve decision-making responsibility in the past, now is the time to do it. Identify the decisions only you can make and delegate the rest. If you feel others lack the necessary skills, its up to you to address any capability gaps by developing the people around you and offering them opportunities to grow.
Reach out, build relationships of trust, and help others to take responsibility. Most organisations I meet are bursting with talent just waiting to be unleashed.
While most leaders have always recognised the value of prioritisation, many have struggled to make tough decisions and stick to them.
COVID has forced us to stop and reprioritise on behalf of our organisations. A year ago the UK government certainly could not have predicted that topics such as lockdown, furlough and vaccination would top their agenda right now. The crisis has forced a level of rapid refocusing and decision making that previously would have taken months, if not years, to achieve.
Wherever and however you are working right now, this is the time to focus resources on the areas that are critical for survival and growth. Do a few things brilliantly, rather than trying to do too many things reasonably well.
For some the COVID crisis has actually become a moment of opportunity, an inflexion point in their market which opened fresh routes to growth and success. Many have learned to make difficult choices and to follow through by stopping projects that do not align with the few priorities that make the biggest difference.
Think about your wider purpose
If you have found yourself in enforced isolation recently, perhaps you have pondered on your purpose. Rarely has the importance of all stakeholders been placed in such stark relief – employees and their families, customers, suppliers, partners and shareholders.
Additionally, many of the leaders I work with are more aware than ever of the wider impact their organisations have on society and on our planet. Colleagues and customers were already becoming more demanding, seeking to hold organisations to account. This desire for organisations to be more responsible has intensified.
The COVID pandemic has placed health and wellbeing at the centre of attention for leaders across all sectors. Not only are organisations seeking to minimise the spread of the virus amongst employees, many are now prioritising positive mental health as never before.
Like the prime minister working from his private apartment, leaders everywhere are working from home, giving others insights into their interior design choices and personal lives.
This level of informality has had a dramatic levelling effect across many organisations, removing the usual signs of corporate status such as the size and location of one’s office, the floor it is on, and the places in the organisation we frequent. We are all on the same screen. This has encouraged many to become more informal, more accessible and more human.
Given the reduced social interaction many of us are experiencing, this increased level of human connection has the potential to be beneficial for wider motivation and engagement.
Now that vaccination is hopefully becoming a reality and we really can look ahead to a new normal, let’s hope that this humanity can become accepted as an essential element of successful leadership – whatever nation, organisation or team you’re leading.
© Management Today 2020
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