Leaders find a human touch at a time of crisis

Co-authored with Larraine Solomon and originally published on LinkedIn.

Over the last few weeks, we have spoken to many colleagues about how organisations have coped during the Covid-19 pandemic, asking them about the lessons they’ve learnt from it, and how it has made them think differently about the future.

Inspired by everyone’s opinions, this is the first in a series of short pieces designed to share insights as well as stir up debate. 

If there’s one thing that the Covid-19 crisis is a test of, it’s leadership. How are leaders balancing the way they react to the many short–term challenges the pandemic has thrown up while ensuring they keep sight of the future – as tricky as that maybe? What are the new opportunities in a period that most believe will be characterised by one of the most severe recessions in living memory? 

Much has already said about the fact that a crisis provides a true test of leadership. History demonstrates many examples. In 1933, U.S. President Franklin D Roosevelt’s delivered his inaugural address during the Great Depression, with the immortal line “The only thing we have to fear is…fear itself.” It was a vital rallying call for a despondent nation, ravaged with unemployment. It symbolised the start of a period of recovery through large-scale investment, public programs and reforms.

Today, there is an equal need to rally employees, with many left in precarious circumstances, others having to drastically change their working environments, all wondering what the future holds. Retaining and motivating talented employees will never be as critical as it is right now.

Who will offer up a similar rallying cry? The good news is that leaders are taking their role as communicators more seriously. A positive — even an unexpected outcome — of the crisis is that it has given many leaders a chance to genuinely connect with their customers, the wider community, and their employees on a much more human level — something they are often accused of failing to do. 

With the need to respond with urgency and empathy in mind, there are plenty of examples of where members of the C-Suite have swapped ‘corporate speak’ for a human tone with more personal, understanding language.

We have seen evidence of this among some world leaders too. Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, is a great example. Her frequent Facebook Live chats have been informal and informative. Before implementing lockdown, she appeared in a well-worn sweatshirt, explaining that she had just put her daughter to bed. Similarly, employees have appreciated seeing business leaders communicate in person from home, with cats, dogs and children appearing in the background.

As Jennifer Sproul, Chief Executive, Institute of Internal Communication says, ‘we have seen an increase in more human-centred communications, placing honesty, transparency and reassurance at the heart of this.’ This is something communicators have long strived for but struggled to make happen: how to be genuine, authentic and open in how companies communicate and connect with their audiences and employees.

Francis McLoughlin, Senior Communications Partner, Transformation Clinical Products and Businesses at CVS Health agrees. ‘Leaders are becoming more human, engaging with the rank and file more often and in a more honest way. Employees appreciate transparency, even if the message is difficult, and they will be more willing to help with the best solution.’ 

Yet, if there is one thing that will further test employees’ relationship with their leaders and managers – and with each other – it is the new ritual of working from home. How long that will remain the case is anyone’s guess, and it could be longer than many had hoped for, especially if companies reorganise how they continue with social distancing in their offices and workplaces.

As Roxanne Tashjian, Global Operations Executive, at Monster Worldwide told us, ‘People will be used to working from home, and office space will be reduced and re-configured for many organisations.’ Additional pressure will be placed on managers, to ‘continue to establish meaningful personal connections with their teams in a different way from before.’ Will the isolation of homeworking require more contact time, and team-check-ins, or can staff be more productive will less interruption?

One way to think about these tensions is, as Tereza Urbankova, Head of Global External Communication, Animal Health at Boehringer Ingelheim, shared her company leaders’ approach, to ‘keep the 2 Ps in mind – pragmatism and proximity.’ So, on the one hand, ‘Take practical decisions about the way the company operates, employees working from home, additional safety measures on sites, etc.’ But that equally means not forgetting about needing to ‘stay close to employees, customers and communities.’ Good leaders, then, must be able to do both at the same time.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing that many companies have done is dramatically speed up changes that would have previously been inconceivable. Examples include enabling thousands of staff to use social networking technology from home without much fuss and rethinking their business models moving from a provider of services to a distributor of goods, or collaborating outside of their sectors, for instance in manufacturing ventilators.

‘It’s inevitable that some leaders will hunker down and just think about the financial sustainability of their business in the next year. Others are getting closer to their people and engaging them in innovation about how problems can be solved’ said Katriina Cooper, an independent branding consultant.

Caroline Ward, Head of Culture and Internal Communication at Slater and Gordon Lawyers makes an equally salient point, emphasising that what matters is to involve employees in solving business problems and ensuring everyone is focussed on common priorities. ‘Learn the lesson about how quickly and effectively change can be implemented when you bring people with you. The pandemic has shown that wide-scale change can be delivered at pace on a global scale in ways that were unimaginable a few months ago.’

There’s an old saying that ‘people leave managers not companies’ and in the current environment, this seems more relevant than ever. Covid-19 is an unfolding moment in our history, with its own very unique, peculiar circumstances. 

But as we’ve seen, it’s also an unparalleled opportunity to build many positive examples of how leaders and staff have been able to find a common goal and pull together. If this continues, we can go some way to creating a better future for us all.

What do you think? Do these examples chime with your experience? Are we witnessing a resurgence in leadership — this time with a new human connection?