COVID-19: Questions leaders need to ask as the pandemic unfolds

Tim McNamara K.D by Tim McNamara K.D | Aug 14, 2020

As the COVID-19 crisis continues to unfold, it is time for senior leaders to consider how leadership will be defined in a professional environment in the context of the global pandemic.

In the current pandemic and in a post-peak COVID-19 world, boards and senior management are reassessing the strength of their teams to address the impact of this and future potential crises.

Conversations I have had with leaders across a range of industries shed some interesting perspectives on the challenges and opportunities we face in this new world.

The new professional environment, at work and at home

Leading in a crisis environment requires vastly different skill sets and teams.

Communications and decision-making must be adapted so that often geographically diverse groups can continue to be motivated and in ensuring business continuity and long-term success.

Internal decision practices around hiring have become so protracted that what would normally be accomplished in a few weeks is taking months and critical hiring decisions stall. Leaders must keep in mind that at a time when employees are worried about their family’s health and economic future, their priorities unsurprisingly turn towards these matters.

Susan C. Keating, CEO of WomenCorporateDirectors said, “With concerns reaching far beyond immediate bottom-line calculations, organizations need directors who can bring a 360-degree view of issues to these discussions – who consider with empathy, nuance, and balance in order to protect the long-term viability of the business and the safety of their people.”

Now is also the time to create new processes for evaluating additions to the management team in assessing temperament, skills, and decision styles to reflect the new reality where reacting to – and leading in – a crisis scenario will have to be done in social isolation.

This is a stressful time for all. A recent report in Newsweek stated, in the week of 21 March alone, spirit sales increased by 75% over the same period in 2019 and all alcoholic beverage sales have increased by 55%. This shows that, in the current crisis alcohol sales have surged. At the same time, multiple articles have cited a worldwide rise in domestic violence.

Knowing your people, understanding their drivers, leveraging the board, and pivoting into a new communications style is a good start in addressing leadership in this time of stress and crisis.

So, what are my five questions?

1. What impact is social isolation having on our business and people?

Social distancing, technically defined as isolation, has caused significant mental health issues in the population across the globe. Depression, dementia, social anxiety, and low self-esteem are just a few results of the current “normal.”

We are social by nature and isolation is physically bad for humans. Michael Bond’s article, “How Extreme Isolation Warps the Mind,” in BBC Future related that some experiences with psychological experiments on the effects of isolation and sensory deprivation had to be called off due to the extreme and bizarre reactions of those involved.

Chronically, he noted that lonely people have higher blood pressure, are even more vulnerable to infection, and are also more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

“We all want to be alone from time to time, to escape the demands of our colleagues or the hassle of crowds. But not alone alone. For most people, prolonged social isolation is all bad, particularly mentally,” Ball wrote.

In a Science Alert article by Sarita Robinson, she pointed out that socially isolated people are less able to deal with stressful situations and may have problems with processing information which turns to difficulties with decision-making, memory storage and recall.

“Future leaders will have to learn how to manage increasingly larger remote teams, coordinating a variety of different skills and personalities,” Rob Strain, President, Ball Aerospace recently said. “This will be significantly more complex for leaders, who will also need to be sensitive to employees running a virtual workplace in their domestic environment.”

2. How are our leaders responding?

Those leading within the current and future global crises will need to be agile, compassionate, and definitely not risk adverse. They will also need to overcome communications challenges.

In the past 60 days, I have already seen multiple instances where senior executives were frustrated and discouraged. In one instance an officer of a large global firm shared his consternation and frustration about his inability to effectively communicate and act with senior management and the board.

In one scenario, expectations were very misaligned with communications styles vastly different and no easy way to reconcile the misalignment because the parties could not travel and meet and there was no social interaction.

Many of today’s leaders are older and are far less adept in using social media platforms and meeting protocols like Adobe Connect, Slack, WebEx, and Zoom. Possessing these skills will be critical in going forward.

3. Do we really know our leaders?

Many of today’s leaders have not been tested in a global crisis situation in the way that many of our parents or grandparents were during the Second World War, for instance. The potential outcome of making decisions in a very compartmentalized environment is all the more critical as senior management and even boards do not know what the capacity their leaders have for operating under fire.

Considering some of the required skills for leading in crisis it is not a shock to see that, globally, many female leaders like Angela Merkel of Germany, Mette Frederiksen of Denmark, Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, and Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand are significantly out-performing other world leaders. Political risks have not stopped any of these leaders in acting decisively – they have also done so with real compassion and a sensitive communications style.

Taking their approaches into the business world, employees need to be managed with patience yet, at the same time, there must be a demonstrated confidence and a clear strategy by leadership. Leaders must be aware of issues of great concern to each employee as there is a fear of the great unknown.

Technology can be a useful tool in a time of crisis, but it cannot be a substitute for human interaction. Yesterday’s assumptions and business plans might not be relevant for today and we do not know what the future will bring.

4. Are our leaders who they need to be?

Management will need to be highly transparent with employees and all stakeholders because, in a crisis, it is easy to get consumed with micro issues. Real leaders know that they must focus on macro issues like business strategy and future direction. Even boards are likely to have to step up and become more involved.

Old ways of doing things will need to change. “With management teams so focused on tactical survival Boards must lean in more deeply to facilitate and guide those moves in the context of a new paradigm of business offering and operating model that evolves out of the daily uncertainty. Be decisive and clear on direction but also iterate and pivot as needed to adapt to the needs of your customers and employees while moving toward your future strategy,” Virginia Gambale, Board Member, JetBlue Airways Corporation said.

Many executives will fail in this crisis environment, not because they are bad managers, but because they do not have the skills, style, temperament, or patience for operating in a crisis environment.

A lot of mistakes will be made and those executives who are hierarchical and ego-centric will fail the most. The informal and formal networks of yesterday have collapsed and communicating in a social-distancing environment is abstract and uncomfortable for most executives.

“The most successful leaders will need to be humbler,” Rob Strain has said. “They cannot know all things. The most successful leaders will adjust, constantly revector when faced with change, and do so faster. They will be the winners. Not the ones who pretend they have all the answers or can see the future.”

Crisis-adept executives are those who are thoughtful listeners, seek wide counsel, and have the ability to expend a lot of one-on-one time with managers and employees. They will possess a lot of Emotional Intelligence and be very empathetic. Empathy is important is helping to make and communicate the difficult and, at times, unpopular decisions.

5. Do we know who our potential hires need to be?

Firms seeking to add talent to the management team must create a strategic orientation toward hiring that includes a strong leadership assessment of how a future executive is likely to lead and manage in a national or global crisis.

As noted by the Management Training Institute among the key leadership skills needed for an executive dealing with crisis are:

  • Communication
  • Agility
  • Self-Control
  • Relationship Management, and
  • Creativity.

Just a few of the questions to be resolved before making a hire include:

  1. how does the executive cope with sudden change
  2. are they decisive enough and how considerate are they in their decision processes
  3. are they a compartmentalized risk taker or holistic, and
  4. are they sufficiently compassionate to motivate their teams or do they take an autocratic “let’s meet the business plan via a command & control approach”?

Getting the right answers to these and other questions could have a significant impact on the future success or failure of the enterprise.

Now is a time for taking aggressive steps in preparing for the future and the unknown crises that will come.

Not seeking counsel, remaining closed to new paradigms, and relying on past practices will put in peril your organization’s future and survivability.

The article was provided by a third party and, as such, the views expressed therein and/or presented are their own and may not represent or reflect the views of ACI, its management, Board, or members. Readers should not act on the basis of any information contained in the blog without referring to applicable laws and regulations and/or without appropriate professional advice.

Tim McNamara K.D

Tim McNamara K.D

Vice Chair & Partner, Odgers Berndtson USA
Tim McNamara, K.D. is a Vice Chair & Partner of Odgers Berndtson USA and has been engaged in global executive search, leadership development, and Organizational Design consulting for over 25 years. He has been listed in Businessweek as one of the top 100 most influential headhunters in the world.
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