Is a new world of leadership Mission Impossible?by
Did we do enough to support our leaders throughout the pandemic? Sean McPheat explores some of the reasons that organisations' leadership floundered rather than flourished.
Leading is tough. Leading through a pandemic is even tougher. For those leaders who were not furloughed or made redundant, we relied on them to keep things going through a very difficult time. Some sank and some swam but did we do enough to support them to lead our people during the pandemic?
Doomed to failure?
Support not only in terms of their own well-being but in providing them with the knowledge, skills and behaviours to support their people at home and/or when they get back into the physical workplace.
Did our leaders have the authority and the skill to solve problems and make effective decisions?
Pre-pandemic, many leaders had not experienced remote working themselves never mind leading people who were working from home. The thought of back-to-back Zoom meetings was foreign to many and to many more it scared the life out of them.
I heard of stories from some organisations where they put all of their leadership teams through video conferencing and webinar training immediately. They recognised the importance that this was going to play. Some organisations were slow off the mark to do this and others just didn’t get around to it for one reason or another.
And the survey says...
Results from a recent global leadership survey by MTD Training suggests that our leaders' capabilities and their confidence in their own capabilities have been reduced due to the pandemic. Here are some of the main points highlighted from the survey and some possible explanations:
- Decision making skills took the biggest hit. A reduction of 2.4 per cent in scores pre pandemic vs during the pandemic.
- Leaders felt that their decision-making skills had declined. Did our leaders have the authority and the skill to solve problems and make effective decisions? Was a lot of this taken out of their hands?
- Developing people ranked last out of 11 key skill areas. It scored 72.7 per cent compared to the top ranked skill which was communication skills that scored 79.9 per cent.
- Leaders might have been so focused on survival and doing more with less that learning and development may have been thrown out of the window. Were our leaders telling instead of coaching now?
- Another explanation could have been the introduction of virtual meetings and webinars. All of the informal learning that would have taken place in an office was now lost and all formal learning went online.
In hindsight we could have and should have been doing more to provide our leaders with specific training on how to run proper virtual meetings and taking that one step further to run training webinars. I know of organisations that did this but many did not.
Are UK leaders poor at managing performance?
What do UAE, Philippines, Malaysia, United States, India, Nigeria. Canada and Australia have in common? Well, their leaders scored higher than their UK counterparts in the 96-question leadership benchmarking survey. Does that surprise you? In fact, leaders from the United Kingdom were well below the global average in terms of leadership capability.
When your people are housebound, have restrictions and a lot of uncertainty in their lives, it can be similar to putting jelly on top of blancmange
Dig deeper within the survey and you find that leadership skills related to managing performance within the UK took a nose dive. Pre-pandemic, leaders rated themselves at 73.2 per cent competent in the area – not a high score to begin with! During the pandemic this was reduced further to 70.4 per cent. Did our leaders feel they could manage performance effectively? Did we provide them with the tools?
It’s a leadership skill that leaders in the UK have always struggled with so if we had our finger on the pulse, maybe we could have done more to support them in this area?
Did organisations support their leaders?
I’m fortunate to have a large network of learning and development professionals who provide me with the inside track. A lot of L&D departments had their headcount slashed through the pandemic. I asked over 50 of them that remained in the business what they did to support their leaders during the pandemic and while it was hard to find 50 of them that had not been furloughed, these were some of the common themes of development:
1. Leading virtual teams
This probably goes without saying but a lot of leaders just had not experienced managing a remote workforce before. It’s challenging all things being equal for a manager exposed to it for the first time. When your people are housebound, have restrictions and a lot of uncertainty in their lives then it can be similar to putting jelly on top of blancmange.
Some organisations they did not want to lose the coaching culture that they had fought so hard to create
2. Building resilience
This became a key phrase during all of the lockdowns and beyond. Being able to understand and implement resilience building techniques and strategies to cope with daily life was a top priority for many.
VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. You probably couldn’t describe the pandemic without mentioning one or all of those. Leaders were being exposed to all of these feelings in massive amounts - not only themselves but their teams as well so they needed to understand who to lead in a VUCA world and how to support themselves and others through it and beyond.
4. Virtual Coaching
Some leaders just went into 'tell' mode, but to build, or in some cases, to rebuild the organisation’s culture, coaching was still seen as a key skill. What was often a face-to-face event or a telephone conversation soon turned into a video meeting where difficult conversations still needed to be had and feedback given. For some organisations they did not want to lose the coaching culture that they had fought so hard to create.
The very department that could help them was being chopped down in numbers. It was probably similar to swapping deckchairs on the Titanic
5. Agile leadership
Leaders needed to be flexible and more agile as to what they did and probably more important, how they did things. Being agile was not a 'nice to have' but it was now a 'must have' skill as leaders needed to work out new ways to solve problems; view the whole pandemic as a challenge and to be more innovative.
6. Stress and wellbeing
This was usually coupled with resilience. A lot of emphasis was now put on the mental health and stress levels of their leaders and that of their people. Mission Impossible? Maybe. The issue that most organisations experienced was that at a time when their leaders needed the most support at any other time in history, the very department that could help them (L&D) was being chopped down in numbers. It was probably similar to swapping deckchairs on the Titanic.
Leaders did what they could with that they had during unprecedented times. If they were lucky, they were supported. Could more have been done? Probably, yes. It’s easy with hindsight. But there was no rule book for this and there never will be.
Interested in this topic? Read Why we all need to learn how and when to lead.
Sean McPheat is the managing director of 5 time award winners, MTD Training. MTD have trained over 250,000 managers from 9,000+ different companies. Sean has been featured on CNN, ITV, BBC and has over 300 different media credits to his name. Sean is also...