As the water level falls, the (leadership) rocks below the surface are exposed

Keith Gordon:

As the world continues to come to grips with COVID-19 and the massive health and economic impacts it will have, there is also much discussion about what the “new normal” for business will be in terms of how people work and the role of leadership after the height of the crisis passes.

Personally, I think we are going to see a quiet revolution in terms of how leadership is assessed and valued – but more on that later.

The last great business upheaval we saw in Australia was the GFC.  Many leaders shone during that period.  Decisive action was taken to ensure their organisations survived.  Sometimes those decisions were tough and included significant down-sizing but leaders did what needed to be done.   Notably, unemployment at that time increased from ~4% to ~6% and has largely been in the 5-6% band ever since.

This time it’s different.

The human face of the COVID-19 crisis will far outweigh that of the GFC.  Already we are seeing estimates that unemployment will rise well into double figures.  However, apart from the tragedy of widespread job losses, another phenomenon is playing out.  Those that are in jobs are evaluating their leaders through a new lens.  A lens where for the first time in the careers of many, they are concerned, even fearful, about the impact COVID-19 may have on their careers, their health, their family and their loved ones.  That lens will judge leaders far more critically than was the case in the GFC.

A friend of mine, a senior finance professional, relayed to me his dismay that the first communication he had from his CEO relating to COVID-19 was about clarifying his own share entitlements through the long-term incentive plan.  No enquiry or concern expressed about people, just straight to self-interest.  It is this sort of behaviour that will be noticed and not forgotten as employees evaluate their leaders during these times.  As the water level of economic activity falls, the leadership rocks will be very visible.

However, there are many more examples where business leadership in Australia is performing extremely well during this crisis.  Leaders are doing what needs to be done to ensure their business survives, as was the case in the GFC, as well as showing genuine care and empathy for their people, particularly as they transition to unfamiliar work patterns. These leaders will reap the rewards of being good to their people for a long-time post COVID-19.

So, what of the quiet revolution?  My crystal ball tells me that COVID-19 is going to significantly change the way people think about current and prospective employers.  Many organisations proudly espouse their purpose and values and prospective employees look for alignment with these in determining where they want to work.  I think in the future, employees (current and prospective) are going to be looking for more.  They are going to be making a careful judgement of the purpose and values of the leaders as people as well as those of the organisation.  People will remember that it was the leaders that acted with humility, grace and care throughout COVID-19 that supported them when they were at their most vulnerable, when the water level was low.

Over time, we will see a migration of talent to those organisations led by the best leaders.  No longer will a product, a market position or the highest salary be enough to attract the best talent.  Good people will look to work for good leaders.

What are those good leaders likely to be doing right now?  In addition to making the tough business calls, they will be seen doing the following:

  • Providing great clarity – with many teams working remotely, leaders will be very clear on what is really important right now. And just as importantly, teams will be clear on what is a lower priority and what can wait until conditions return to normal.
  • Creating Organisational Leadership Alignment – the best senior leaders understand the need for all leaders in the organisation to be aligned and sending the same messages to the organisation – this won’t just happen and requires effort and focus;
  • Being authentic – now more than any time before, people want to see understand what their leaders stand for, what’s important to them, and what worries them at a personal level; and
  • Caring and connecting – team members are feeling very vulnerable. Good leaders are remaining connected and talking (yes – talking) to their people. They are demonstrating an understanding of what others are going through. This will mean more than anyone can imagine.

These leadership attributes will come naturally to many, others may have to push themselves outside their comfort zone.  But make no mistake, when COVID-19 is over, people will look to align themselves with the leaders who stood up during this period.  The quiet revolution is coming, and it may not take another event where the water level falls for the evidence to be seen.

When the dust finally settles on COVID-19 and we reflect on the impact it had, I hope there is a silver lining in business.  Perhaps that silver lining will be the learning that business does not have to be about being better than others, it can be about being better with others.  Great leaders creating healthy organisations where the collective spirit truly shines and prospers may become the norm of the future.