In just six months, COVID-19 has fundamentally altered the business landscape. It is an event that has reshaped society in far-reaching ways, questioned our business strategies and processes, and it has turned normal upside down.
As we look to the future, we also have to reflect: What has it taught us? How can we learn? For me, crisis moments are typically balanced with anxiety and the presentation of opportunity. It requires flexibility, but it highlights the sense of community, the power of people and an appreciation of the simple things in life.
If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that leadership is more important than ever. In this new normal, the softer skills have taken center stage and sorted the strong from the weak, and leadership styles will have to adapt for businesses to survive. There is no longer room for rigid, unempathetic leaders who rely on hierarchical structures and have large egos.
What will set winning leaders apart is honesty, authenticity, adaptability, optimism and a little outside-the-box thinking. Employees don't want to work for inauthentic managers, and businesses don't want to transact with other businesses that aren't transparent.
To be a great leader in our new future, people must have empathy to inspire their teams. It is a critical business skill. The worst of times, like a pandemic, highlight just how crucial leading with empathy can be. For some it is innate, for others, a workshop or two may be required, but the benefits of true compassionate leadership are immeasurable.
Empathy opens doors, it removes confusion, and it develops deeper levels of trust and loyalty. When people are more open, they can be more creative, more motivated and better at what they do, which is all great for business. Understanding and patience go a long way in less-rigid, uncertain times, and that applies not only to work pressures but also to personal and health worries.
This concept of leading with compassion extends to all stakeholders, not just across your teams and partners but also your clients. Without them, you have no business; showing empathy externally, and within calculated reason, of course, will create loyalty and trust that can make all the difference.
Empower your people.
Your business is brilliant because, as a leader, you surround yourself with brilliant people. That's my mantra, and it is one of the earliest leadership lessons I learned.
If you empower teams to make mistakes, be brave, and put aside the things that could hold them back, you are creating the perfect environment for them to come up with powerful ideas that could radically change the way you do business for the better. People naturally want to feel empowered – it's up to you to give them the platform. It is about responsibility, trust, listening, purpose and self-improvement, and it can create a more connected culture.
Communicate with transparency.
With less face-to-face interaction, discerning how your team is doing can be difficult. Likewise, they may find it more difficult to gauge how you are feeling, so being open and honest in any organization is important. It is also the key to being an authentic leader and delivering on your promises.
If you have tough decisions to make, be very clear, and tell people why. And communicate openly and honestly with your team, whether that is in relation to status reports about critical projects in your company or in response to a simple "How are you doing?" You don't always have to have the answers. Being an effective leader doesn't mean that you can't share how you feel.
Communicating with transparency entails being clear about what you know, what you are planning and what it means for people in a way that your audience will understand.
Look after mental wellness.
Being a compassionate leader isn't just about creating a safe work environment for your teams, it is about creating a safe environment. People naturally respond anxiously to uncertainty however well prepared they may feel that they are. Further, with remote working looking like it will be a strategic business opportunity in the future, recreating the office environment and those water-cooler moments will be essential.
So, this tip is for leaders and employees: Without your good mental health, you cannot lead, and if your team's well-being is suffering, they cannot support you.
Work in conjunction with technology.
People will always be your biggest asset, but technology can help them become even better at what they do, giving you that all-important business advantage. COVID-19 has forced organizations to adopt new technologies, enhancing efficiency and user experience. The future will see only further innovations being embraced to complement your talented staff, so be open to this and equip your people with the necessary skills to adapt.
Adapt with urgency.
Uncertainty will be around for a good while, yet in such a world, being able to adapt quickly and effectively is key. Thinking ahead is all well and good, but effective leaders need to make quick, informed decisions to maintain business success.
In order to survive, businesses have had to be agile, flexible and change business models at a rapid pace. This may slow down as we accept our new normal, but that ability will remain essential. It is not just about asking the what-if scenarios, it is about identifying the opportunities for your business. If we have learned little else, we have learned that those businesses with a flexible plan are the most resilient.
Stay realistically optimistic.
Effective leaders are usually relatively optimistic. Thinking outside of the box for a unique solution or seeing a new business opportunity in the midst of a pandemic is what creates effective leaders. Don't be blinded by the optimism, though.
Yes, your team and your co-leaders need to buy into your path for the business and in your belief, but it needs to remain open and honest, acknowledging the bumps that will happen and learning from these every step of the way. As the Stockdale Paradox reiterates: Have faith, but confront reality and make the best of what is in our power.