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Leading In The Post-Pandemic World: My Trepidations, Experiences and Takeaways

Till about a quarter back, many leaders had a long list of woes — growing complexity of business, increased competition, slowing sales, credit crisis, GST, digital disruption, policy changes, global markets and rising global trade barriers.  Overnight, the onslaught of Covid-19 completely changed leadership menu of worries, and the only worry and focus is to survive, followed by evolving in the midst of the crisis to grow into the future.

The pandemic is truly a test of leadership at all levels. The viral contagion is ravaging economies, people and livelihoods. Globally, governments and leaders are gasping for an effective coping strategy. This extraordinary situation has placed some uncommon question like never before to the leaders around the world. This global pandemic has compelled nations and organizations to change strategies, policies and the way of dealing with their people, who are demanding from Leadership, skills that can help lead them through this crisis.

In times of crisis, hierarchy has no potency and leadership is all about purpose and not power. This crisis does not draw parallel with any previous crisis and hence there are no set scripts for leaders to follow to sail through, at least not the one that I have seen thus far. The question is – how do leaders navigate through the crisis and lead in the post pandemic world?  Looking back at previous crisis, and what worked traditionally, there have been few traits which have defined leadership across generations, Taking a cue from these traits, my own experiences and contextualising it with present time, sharing my takeaways on leading in the post pandemic world. But the question remains whether they hold any good and are enough in current times of managing the storm. 

Be the captain of the ship: The world is extremely worried and concerned, it’s important for leaders to be thoughtful — but it’s equally important to act. In the current scenario, ‘wait and watch’ is not an option. If there was ever a time to be decisive, empathetic, collaborative, it’s now.

Think of crisis in phases: One may assign different names or specific lengths to these phases, but they all roughly map to three distinct time horizons:

  • respond: shelter and protect
  • recover: opening up and innovation
  • resurrect: the post Covid-19 phase of rebuild and growth

Each of the phases has unique challenges need different approach in handling of people and other stakeholders.  Shared leadership, collaboration, open communication, empathy for teams, including furloughed employees are the common themes emerging. How leaders approach the three phases of this crisis and treat all their stakeholders and the whole range of their human needs — will be real “moments that matter”, contributing to the level of attachment (or not) the stakeholders will have to the company in the future and to the ability of the company to thrive.

Power of Presence: Incredible leaders emerge when the chips are down and there is seemingly no way out. The lesson that has always remained with me from previous crisis is the power of presence. The ability to look someone in the eye with empathy and compassion during adversity is critical. Ensure you and your team are ready to manage and grow, no matter how uncomfortable or unpleasant. Be ready to meet the moment with vigour, transparency and, decisiveness.

Authenticity & intimacy: Unlike the belief of technology nay-sayers that it makes interactions cold and impersonal, as per my own experience, I actually found a greater degree of authenticity & intimacy among people as they attend meetings from kitchens, living rooms and home offices. The background noise and family walking around in the background, is no longer annoying but real. This crisis has brought people together and in an un-said manner there is a resolve and commitment to stand tall together and move ahead.

Safety first- No rush to open offices: Work from home is not a new concept. In fact, it is a matter of choice in my organisation for over a decade and half. Post the initial bump in employee productivity due to settling down challenges, most have been impressed with how well #WFH works on productivity with no loss on ling commute time. Now that office are opening up, be in no hurry to get people to come to office. It should be on voluntary or need basis and only by private transport. Staff members who returned back home should be advised not to travel back to attend office .

Blended work place will be the way of life: Safety first and cost efficiency are the new mantras. With these variables, as office are opening up, Companies won’t return to an “all hands on deck” status for months or even years. The future workplace and work force will be a blended work place and blended work force – in office, #WFH, freelancers and remote workers. It’s safe, is productivity efficient, cost efficient and open a vast global pool of talent to tap into. Leaders have to make fundamental changes not just to the physical office, but the company culture as well in line with the blended work place in mind.

Technology, Technology, Technology: It abundantly clear that technology is most critical today and will be pivotal in redefining the future of work.  We had a first hand experience of the power of technology, in not just enabling communication but also in conducting business in an efficient manner. The disruption was minimal for those who were ahead of the curve of digital transformation, AI and technology adoption. However, going forward, businesses have to be tech-driven rather than just tech-enabled. Important for leaders to charter the course of their organisation and teams to be ready for the tech-driven future that is coming.

Culture and preparedness: Ecological economics is reflecting a sense of disquietude. Your biggest support in times of utter uncertainty and change are your employees —it’s a wonderful and very comforting feeling to have. Times like these define a company’s culture and demonstrates the values it stands for. This pandemic for sure has taught us all to prepare for continuous uncertainty. This virus may not be the first or last of it’s kind and has changed the fabric of our engagement, work place, social interaction. Leaders have to prepare for an uncertain future – they are responsible for the resurrection of their organisations, responsible for the stakeholders and have to create a new work culture keeping the future of work place and work force in mind.

Principle of Four Cs: This is the biggest crisis we have ever seen, and its certain that there will be a lot of pain before it is behind us. Every day, in fact every hour, brings new and unforeseen developments. There are no textbook and no ready answers. Each of us must find our own answers. I recommend the 4 Cs approach that works for me: Calmness > Collaboration > Cooperation > Communication.

  • Calm: Be calm and Our ability to detach from the noise around and think clearly on how to navigate the situation at hand, with agility and precision is pivotal. Keeping the mind decluttered is a must to think innovatively and think ahead.
  • Come together, Collaborate: The magic of the human race is us – people. While everyone is trying to survive, the community, business, country and world, should come together to collaborate, share knowledge and counter this outbreak. It is important for all of us to show kindness and compassion towards one another and extend help wherever required to not just survive but thrive together.
  • Cooperation– Shared leadership: I used to believe that leadership is about leading from the front. However, in crisis, leaders need to accumulate the collective wisdom, expertise to marshal actions at multiple levels. Leverage the power of experts in your team to move faster with specific focus.Every downturn has created unparalleled team bonds and also seen emergence of new leaders.  It’s a great time to share the load, hunker down and build new products, innovate and find new opportunities.
  • Communicate: Engage, Engage, Engage with your teams and people. Keep the conversations going. Ensure you have regular touch points with your key team members and they with their teams. Take away the uncertainty and ensure people aren’t conjecturing. People want to hear from leaders during tough times — so make sure your voice is heard.

Practise resilience: Navigating through this crisis is like a heavy weight boxing championship. We must go through the 15 rounds to emerge champions on the other side. Leaders need to be cautiously optimistic and consciously prepare for adverse conditions where things might not be in their control and simultaneously plan to explore the opportunities ahead, always keeping the employees’ interest at heart. Resilience and patience will see us through.

Learn from this: My mentor once said to me, never waste a failure.  Expanding on that I say, never waste a crisis. Use it as a teaching moment and as an opportunity to build relationships, to come closer as a team and work with greater productivity level, to innovate to find solution emerging problems, to spot and create opportunities, to be prepared for such future crisis.

Conclusion

Leaders are the ones who set the cultural foundation of the company and inspire teams to lead the organization during crisis time. However, this global pandemic crisis has certainly put leaders on test as there are no clear answers considering that there is no past precedent to draw parallels from. As businesses reel, leaders have to look beyond bottom lines to worry about the well-being of all their stakeholder- staff, partner ecosystem & also community. It is utmost certain that this crisis will change business and operations for posterity.

Uncertainty and evolution is given in the post COVID world. To navigate through this crisis, leaders need to have the capacity to function effectively with exceedingly high levels of tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty and off course high level of resilience and empathy.  The traditional traits of leadership combined with the new ones, backed by authenticity, collaboration and communication should hold steady in this crisis.

The end priority for every leader, is not just to respond but also to lead teams to success in the post pandemic world. And this test of leadership is at every level, be it nation, community, organisation or civil society. Truly effective leaders will come on the other side of this crisis as better, humble and more learned leaders.

“The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.” -John Maxwell

Kriti Makhija

Chief Financial and Compliance Officer, Genesis-BCW

Advisory Board Member, Nasscom Community

Pic Credit: Internet (Harvard Business School)

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