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Calling for an Evolution of Leadership: Today’s Leaders Must Empathize and Understand

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Teresa Hopke, CEO, Talking Talent

2020 is the year that has changed our world of work forever. It’s been challenging in so many ways – and it’s also had a huge impact on leadership. From boardrooms to living rooms, meeting rooms to spare rooms, leadership has moved away from face-to-face interactions to digital communications. At the same time, D&I initiatives have been put on hold – a worrying sign.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has warned that the coronavirus pandemic could wipe out “the modest progress” made on gender equality at work in recent decades, with women globally at greater risk of losing their jobs. To me, this is a warning sign that we are in danger of losing sight of what’s important – and we must be intentional about making meaningful progress around inclusion.

Now, more than ever, businesses must ensure that equality initiatives are being prioritized; that in the fight for survival, or returning to business as usual, people aren’t being sidelined in the workplaceThey must also realize the need for a new style of leadership. We started off with IQ – an intelligence quotient – then we moved onto EQ, an emotional quotient. Today, we need a new intelligence: a care quotient (CQ), which encapsulates self-care, other care, and simply giving a damn about others.

How shutdown has changed leadership

The pandemic changed the world in a matter of days – including work. As teams went from being in the office to working from home, all the workplace elements that people enjoy – emotional support, talking over making a cup of coffee – disappeared in an instant. Finding ways to replicate that team feel and connection has been challenging; especially for leaders. Not being able to see people’s body language – apart from what you can observe through a 22-inch screen – and missing in-person catch-ups has meant a huge change in how people have been able to lead. It’s created a new imperative for leaders to be even more inclusive – and push forward where it really matters, even when in survival mode.

With many leaders forced to think just about surviving, and maintaining revenue levels, it’s naturally pushed elements like inclusion initiatives lower down managers’ and leaders’ to-do lists and priorities. But now, it’s becoming dangerous as leaders’ budgets to invest in these important measures – like training – are disappearing. Inclusion initiatives aren’t just a nice to have; they are of vital importance.

Over the weeks we’ve been shut down, it’s been positive to see managers and leaders forging closer, more authentic relationships with their teams than they have in months, even years. They’ve also had to connect with people on a far more human and individual level. There has been a swing towards leaders and managers being more inclusive without intentionally doing it. Now, we need to think about maintaining that beyond the COVID shutdown – and consider what we’ve learned from it.

The importance of authentic leadership

We’ve seen how well our clients have been able to cope with coronavirus-related business uncertainty, where teams and functions have been and are being led by inclusive leaders – those who bring an understanding of importance around wellbeing, engagement, and longing to the table.

Throughout the shutdown, a new style of leadership has been born, with leaders showing a high care quotient – communicating more authentically and asking people about themselves and their personal positions. This includes being aware of people’s pressure points – which are easy to forget after everyone leaves the office for the day, and much easier to remember when you can see people’s set-ups on camera and hear their children in the background.

The shutdown has also enabled leaders to show their own vulnerability – which doesn’t always come naturally to people – and tested them to practice self-compassion, even when they have been running on empty. “Being at your personal best right now is mostly allowing yourself to be good enough, and if that means letting your children photo bomb your work video conference, then so be it.” This great advice, from Coaching Director Rob Bravo, is something that a lot of leaders have had to follow over the past few months. 

Above all, remote working has highlighted the need to create a sense of belonging and community and build inclusive cultures. Now is not the time to cut back; now’s the time to dial up.

The next stage of COVID-19 will be shifting through the change curve – when offices reopen, some people will experience a real – and valid – sense of grief and loss as a result. Then there will be the people who are excited about going back to the office – but are uncertain about how a phased return and social distancing measures will change their office. A new study has revealed, perhaps unsurprisingly, that people are in no rush to return to their old desks. Three out of five Americans who switched to remote working say they prefer working from home. Just one in four workers under the age of 55 actually wants to go back to the office. 

True inclusivity can help ease that pain and enable leaders to learn from it. Before, most businesses weren’t interested in remote working, or made it a reality for its workers. But the shutdown has changed all that. Now, leaders must focus on deliverables – not the way of working. Especially because it’s what the younger generation wants – the generation that will start dominating the workplace more.

Let’s not slide back to our old ways

As businesses – many of whom have had to make tough financial decisions – re-balance, leaders must also be considerate – and intentional – when addressing any necessary cost-cutting issues born out of the pandemic. A lot of companies who are looking at layoffs will claim to focus on promoting senior females and supporting underrepresented groups as they let those very people be the first to go. It’s a conversation that’s become even more crucial to have around the continued Black Lives Matter movement – these are considerations that just cannot be ignored.

Organizations restructuring must recognize that certain sectors will be particularly impacted, and do all they can to combat that. They must also understand the importance of having diverse experiences, skill sets and points of view around the table – especially at such a pivotal time in corporate America. We have the opportunity, right now, to impact how we move forward as a society around the topic of equality. Organizations must ensure that they don’t just support diversity, but are diverse. That will be the mark of a truly enlightened company, and one that is best-positioned for success.

COVID-19 has changed all of our priorities – and the companies that get things right stand to emerge from it all the stronger. After all, it’s going to become more important for people to be in an organization that cares and champions them. Therefore, we need an evolution of leadership in the leaders of today; whether they are running a team or a company, all leaders must practice and preach inclusion with purpose. Not only that, but they must lead with a high care quotient – otherwise the people they lead will stop caring about them, and the company they work for. And that will be worse for business than coronavirus.