Insights From a Consultant: Fostering Leadership and Performance In Uncertain Times

Pre Covid-19, if you’d asked any SA business leader how long it would take to procure the equipment, train the staff and change the business culture to enable working from home five days a week, the answer would have been measured in anything between 5 to 10 years or more. But the Covid-19 lockdown has forced many to realize the truth of what the information technology industry has been saying for 15 years or more: the essential requirement to complete most tasks is a laptop and an internet connection, nothing more. 

Flexible working contracts have been investigated and introduced into many forward-thinking organizations for some time now as part of engagement strategies and business growth. Despite this many who have tried this new way often complain that it doesn’t work. It may be accepted by organizations in principle but processes were not put in place to support the remote worker – people had to still come in for face-to-face meetings and flexible arrangements were perceived as being more for executives who needed to carve out thinking, planning & design time when they did not want interruptions or to catch up on backlog emails. 

Five months in and the impossible has become essential. Great efforts have been made to keep businesses open during the lockdown. Even the most technophobic and set-in-their ways executives have embraced new applications — and the results have been overwhelmingly positive. Employees are proving that the age-old myth that to be productive you have to be in the office, is a lie. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the functioning of organizations in several ways. One consequence of these disruptions that we have seen emerge quickly is the initial transitional struggle of managers to lead employees who are out of sight. The sudden transition from having employees physically work in the office to remote work has revealed an ugly truth: Most companies fail in building trusting work relationships.

Although many technological solutions are at our disposal, many business leaders have felt — and still feel — uncomfortable with having their employees work from home. Amid the coronavirus crisis, employees indeed signal the negative impact that their managers have on their life at home, which has now also become their workplace. Complaints abound that managers care more about productivity than the health of their employees; that online meetings are becoming means to monitor and assess work attitude, and that little sympathy is shown about the fact that work and family life has now become an integrated reality with all the corresponding disturbances. Despite this, there are many accounts that productivity is currently up, but is that sustainable? Knee-jerk survival reactions to deal with the uncertainty, stay afloat and keep a steady cash flow through the crisis, some organizations have applied a pay cut ranging from 10% – 30%, triggering further disengagement in some areas. The crisis isn’t over, but crisis thinking has to be. Accepting uncertainty must become part of your organizational DNA. 

If there is any positive outcome from this, it has forced leaders to clarify their business strategies and goals, assess the performance of all staff and pinpoint the specific roles required – in a sense, right-sizing the organization for the crisis while keeping a strong bench for the recovery. One MD I’m working with today across multiple African countries is currently resetting plans with 3 priorities: 1: taking care of employees – making them feel safe, 2: reaching out to customers & other stakeholders to keep important services going in support of their communities, and 3: strategic management – analyzing the competition for opportunities to excel in the recovery. 

Even this early in the pandemic crisis, we’re seeing that the businesses that will thrive and survive are the ones that have been able to stay cool, accept the reality NOW, and quickly innovate their product lines and business models to suit this new low-touch world. Patterns that I have noticed as a Leadership & Performance coach are that teams who have the right foundations of trust and psychological safety present can pivot their thinking and business respectively. They are prepared to invest in making their business more agile for the challenges and opportunities yet to come whether it be supporting employee development, investing in technology, or enabling HR to support employees working remotely. 

As a consultant supporting such businesses, I’ve had to lead by example and adapt to the changing world. Being a consultant set up to work across the African continent, I was already working remotely but I had to transition to working with groups of teams virtually to shift behavior quickly, in a very “low-touch” economy. I had a combination of experiences, some Companies had a knee jerk reaction and stopped everything considered non-essential including training and coaching. On the other hand, being supportive in reaching out to customers to find out how best to support them resulted in co-creating solutions that helped meet their needs.

Just being there for a quick or not so quick thinking conversation also opened up new possibilities that required actively networking with professional contacts to source ideas & capabilities I didn’t have, ramp up or learn how to communicate through social media and virtual communication technology. Any free time was spent attending webinars and learning from others on how to translate my learning solutions to a virtual online medium; taking online courses in things that are helping me challenge my business model and that also gives me joy. I have been pushed to look at things I knew I should but didn’t feel urgent enough.

I don’t profess to have all the answers. It’s new to me too. But I do know that if we all want to thrive and not just survive, we have to learn, unlearn, relearn repeat and together we are learning, making mistakes, learning from them & growing, one step at a time.

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