The Leadership Challenge

Paul Kelly - March 27, 2020

The Leadership Challenge

Over the past decade, we have seen significant structural change in work patterns globally. Increased pressure from shareholders on company leaders, demands for increased productivity and the emergence of the shared economy have all played their part.

This change in work patterns has been accelerated as a consequence of the current COVID-19 crisis.

There has been an unprecedented level of pressure placed on leaders from many parts of society, from health, to government, community and business.

Many of those leaders were working to unreasonable levels of capacity prior to the crisis. A number are now highly visible, under immense pressure and simply ill-equipped to deal with the chaos that surrounds us.

Some challenging questions to consider:

  1. How does a leader communicate at a time when stakeholders expect clarity and there are simply no right answers to many questions?
  2. When should leaders concede and when should they fight?
  3. How do they build trust and confidence in those who follow them?
  4. When should they appear decisive and when should they admit there are no right answers?
  5. How much vulnerability should leaders display and how much control?
  6. How much should messages be simplified?
  7. Is there a playbook for unprecedented leadership, strategy and communication challenges?
  8. How do I simultaneously deal with a crisis and build long term value for our stakeholders?
  9. How do I keep teams productive when they are all at home?

The answers to many of these questions are complex and, in some instances there are no answers.

However, there are approaches that have been proven over time, which are far more relevant today than they have ever been.

Let’s look at a few examples:

  1. A two-speed operating rhythm

Many leaders are setting up a two-speed operating rhythm with their teams. This means dedicated agendas and meetings to deal with both urgent crisis tactical discussions, and separate focused sessions dealing with more strategic issues for their teams and organisations.

  1. Clear decision-making and communication frameworks

Clear decision-making and communication frameworks will help leaders discern between situations where they need to be conclusive and decisive, and when to hold back and to more deeply engage stakeholders to discover the right decision and communication path.

  1. Take the opportunity to reset strategy

Many teams are necessarily focused on crisis management, which is both necessary and demanding. Several are also taking the opportunity to lift the heads of their leadership teams to reset medium to long term strategy, taking advantage of very difficult operating conditions.  They’re able to adopt a different perspective on the environment, ambition and strategy for the business. These sessions are now being run very effectively remotely.

  1. Maximise remote productivity

Ensure, in addition to the IT platform, teams are set up appropriately from multiple perspectives:

Right team engagement rhythms – more regular interactions, tighter meeting agendas, armed with pre-reading and managed tightly to ensure optimal participation;

  • Shorter work-cycles – where appropriate, ensuring work/task/project cycles are shorter and sharper to maintain the right level of intensity and review;
  • Delegation and coaching – while teams are remote, ensuring managers and leaders are highly proficient at coaching and feedback to maximise the level of engagement and productivity of all individuals in a team;
  • Development – taking the current opportunity to access high-quality approaches to remote development in both technical and soft-skill areas including communication, leadership, executive coaching, ethics, resilience and trust.

This is, without doubt the period when we depend most on our leaders and expect them to stand up.  Leaders can do this in areas they have direct control over, as they build focus, productivity and morale of their teams.


Remote Setting of Strategy

Having run over 2000 facilitated strategy and positioning discussions over the past 10 years, it was a great experience to have recently completed a three day strategy offsite with a large cap. leadership team run over WebEx with a team spread out over 14 different locations.

The team, over the three days participated in an ambitious agenda including:

– Aligning on business portfolio priorities;

– Identifying transformational growth opportunities;

– Driving operational efficiency improvements, and

– Redesigning the organisation.

While the current crisis dictated that all team members remain remote, it also provided the leadership team with a unique opportunity to look differently at how the business could be run more effectively for customers, for the team and for shareholders.

Conventional facilitation wisdom prevailed in many areas of the meeting. There were a range of clearly framed conversations, useful interactions, high level of leadership evaluation of strategic options and sharing of ideas.

There are a number of specific insights that were gained as a consequence of running the meeting across a video conferencing platform. These insights will help many as they utilise such platforms in the coming weeks and months:

  1. Framing

While setting up any meeting can be important, remotely conducted meetings require more focused expectation management around participation timing breaks and engagement.

  1. Discussion cadence

Facilitated conversations by definition should have the right mix of two-way dialogue. For remotely conducted conversations, the cadence of this dialogue should incorporate:

  • Pre-reading so people come armed with information
  • Shorter presentations
  • Questions along the way
  • regular takeouts from each part of the discussion
  1. Breaks

Incorporate 2 minute breaks every 20 minutes. This will maintain energy and focus.

  1. Breakouts
  • Include regular small-team breakouts (run on separate meeting invitations)
  • Pre-prepare templates to be filled in as the team reaches conclusions
  • Bring them back into the larger meeting to debrief
  • Maintain the intensity of dialogue on the de-brief
  1. Synthesis
  • Regularly look to synthesise themes, decisions, conclusions and sentiment to ensure full engagement.

These suggestions will help secure maximum engagement and alignment form the many critical conversations we will all be having remotely over coming weeks and months.


Remote Learning and Development

We have seen a significant shift in preferences for the consumption of learning and development by managers and leaders.

There is a clear increase in appetite for learning which is briefer, sharper, experiential and applied at all levels in many organisations.

The emergence of digital and blended learning has played an important role in the improvement of effectiveness, and productivity of learning and development.

While digital learning has gradually improved over the past few years, there is still an absence of tailored, flexible and highly effective content in a number of areas – particularly in soft skills such as communication, ethics, and leadership development.

Recent world developments have increased a focus not only on blended learning – more specifically on remote learning and development.

Using a combination of Zoom/Skype/Webex technology combined with digital learning platforms, users have made a step change in both effectiveness and productivity of their development irrespective of their location.

We have a number of remote clients who are reaching into an emerging array of delivery formats including:

  • A leading investment manager who delivers digital learning techniques and tools to its investment managers and distribution teams and reinforces that with face-to-face coaching.
  • A global life insurance company who develops its Japanese leaders with a combination of face-to-face coaching and Zoom-based development.
  • A leading engineering contractor who has accelerated the development of its leaders through a blended (digital and face-to-face) dev elopement program over a 12 month period.
  • An investment bank who delivers a digital learning program to its client-facing teams and reinforces that with transaction and event-specific development.

While disruption to work patterns has intensified, it has and will ultimately improve learning productivity and effectiveness for many businesses and individuals. It will place constructive onus on providers to deliver a compelling mix of experience, expertise, commercial and strategic acumen, multi-format delivery mechanisms together with measurable impact of development.

There has never been a better time to maximise learning productivity irrespective of location.