A New Journey for Association Leaders Begins Now
There is no guide, no business book to prepare a leader for management during a situation caused by such a disruptive pandemic as COVID-19. Traditionally, during change we rely on our experience to provide business continuity and ensure employee engagement. In this case, could we automatically count on our experience to find solutions and provide stability? I believe the answer to this question is not straightforward.
We have all been challenged on a personal and a professional level, as we had to deal with extremely demanding situations on a daily basis within our household and within our work environment. The honest truth is that our leadership skills have been tested like never before. We have combined failures with successes along the way and our boundaries have been pushed towards an unknown place. Now comes the time to look back at the last 19 months, reflect on our failures and our accomplishments and create the foundations for a stronger leadership skill set, which I believe to be a more balanced combination of traditional management/business skills with more humane approaches. The office-home divide has been diluted after 19 months of working from home, our ‘new office’. Can the pendulum swing back the other way? Clearly not, but now is the moment to find the right equilibrium.
As I reflect on my personal experience, I have identified a number of key leadership characteristics that are an essential part of this new equilibrium.
LISTENING AND EMPATHY
Everybody has been impacted by this pandemic and each individual had to find their way to deal with it. Some of us have found their “escape valve” more easily, others have had more difficulty. As leaders, our first responsibility is to listen to our team and find out how each individual is feeling, assess what their needs are and demonstrate empathy where required.
Usually, we are told to keep up some boundaries between ourselves and our employees, but in these unprecedented circumstances those boundaries have become blurred. You cannot expect people to leave their problems at the front door when (1) the front door is their home and (2) the world out there is in “chaos”. So, should you just tell them to “focus on the job and be professional”? Impossible! If you are not already doing it, it is time to develop the humane side of your leadership skills.
STRUCTURE AND PURPOSE
You wake up and read the distressing news on how many new infections, hospitalized and deceased there have been in the past 24h. You watch the news at lunch time to hear about a new round of lockdown measures. You end the day with more news filled with heart-breaking stories from other countries. The world seems to be falling apart…
So what do you do as a leader? As a leader, you offer structure and purpose so that your team finds comfort and reassurance that at least their work environment is not also crumbling under their feet, that they can still be of added value and find a meaning to their day. I am not saying you work in ignorance of reality, but that you need to offer a “safe cocoon” within which there is stability and familiarity. You can argue that’s part of your traditional business/management leadership skill set… Yes, it is! Nevertheless, this is the moment you need to reinforce it, instead of taking it for granted, and push it through in full respect and recognition of what you have learned under “listening and empathy”.
INCLUSION AND PARTICIPATION
This skill set touches on the previous skills I have discussed above, that’s why I believe it is important to give it a special mention. A new journey has started, a new equilibrium in the pendulum. Implementation will not be easy and, as a leader, difficult decisions will also have to be taken. However, only through the full inclusion and participation of all colleagues in the reflection on how the new future looks like will it be possible to ensure consensus and be successful. Whether you lead a small or a big organization, there are always ways to allow people to express their opinion.
Some of you will read this and might think “easy”, “that’s what I always do”, “he is naive”. This might all sound obvious to you. But be honest and admit that these last 19 months have really challenged you to such an extent that you have doubted on how to act several times and you have also failed in some cases…
My recommendation is to take a step back, reflect deeply on yourself and your attitude in relation to what I said. Frankly, I am confident we can all do better and do more in driving these skills forward for the benefit of our teams and the organisations we lead. Therefore, if I did not offer you anything new, I hope at least I convinced you to take a few minutes to practise self-reflection. This is the skill I did not mention, because, after all, it is the one that underpins every good leader’s actions no matter what circumstances we might face.