How to lead in the coronavirus crisis

If there was ever a time when leadership meant addressing a hall full of employees, the coronavirus has ended that. Leadership is now not just about the message but also about the way it's delivered. Bulletins and updates are still vital for disseminating information but it's the smaller meetings that really get the leadership messages across.

"Leadership is not about one person but about the team," says Lynn Walters of Pure. "The top team needs to be close and everyone needs to behave in the same way, projecting the same values." It's the team that spreads the messages across the business.

"The best leaders are spending time checking in with people, shooting the breeze," says David Smith, who was HR director at ASDA in its crucial turnaround years and now is a consultant, speaker and management coach specialising in performance management and change management. "Those personal conversations really matter - and they matter as much for the leader as for employees."

"The coronavirus seems to have moved us to a place where it's okay for leaders to show vulnerability," says Lynn Walters. "It is about communicating honestly, showing vulnerability but projecting hope. That is what gives people confidence - if leaders respond with care, compassion, hope and honesty." 

Two-way communication

"The best leaders will be finding out what works for their people and building their plan for coming out of lockdown around that," says David Smith. "Employers who impose from above will be less successful than those who build their scaling-up plan around what their people want."

"It's important to get a dialogue going across the whole business," says Lynn Walters. "One of the marks of a good leader is the ability to listen to their people."

Best Employer companies have always stressed this and David Smith says it's more important than ever. "My advice is to set up an employee-led smarter-working group - right now," he says. "It's vital to get employee feedback to know how we reinstate work so it's better for everyone.

"People have been working so much more flexibly during the lockdown," he points out. "The challenge is to stay flexible and not try to force people back into some sort of artificial pattern. If you've worked out how you do your best work, why would I want to make you work less effectively?"

Any transition from remote working is an opportunity to ask some hard questions about operations. "The first thing we should be asking is 'What did we stop doing? And did we miss it?'," says David. "Everyone has rituals they've inherited about the way they work. We've never had a better opportunity to stop and reassess them."

The challenge for leaders is to empower teams to keep efficiencies discovered in the lockdown, to challenge old habits and transform the way they work - while keeping the essence of the business. This is about making sure everyone shares the same values.

Value-driven leadership

"The businesses I see struggling at the moment seem to be those that don't have clear values, where the people don't really know what's expected of them," says Andy Smith, CEO of marketing agency, StrategiQ.

"If every action, decision and communication reflects the company's values and is delivered with authenticity, it will inspire and empower employees to adopt the same approach," says Lynn Walter, adding, "This is the difference that helps companies stay on course, keeps the culture intact and it reflects well on the business."

"Our values and behaviours have never been more important. They're keeping us strong as a company," says Andy Smith.

"When a business applies its values well, it applies them to all the stakeholders - to suppliers, to customers, to investors as well as employees," says Lynn Walters. "The companies standing out at the moment, the ones who are enhancing their reputations, are the ones taking this value-driven approach. And that comes from the leadership."

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Written by

Lynn Walters

Lynn is a founding Director of Pure and leads Pure Executive. She has over 25 years’ experience recruiting for executive appointments, and helps east of England-based businesses with senior management and board-level recruitment. Lynn also leads our Best Employers Eastern Region initiative and Women’s Leadership Programme, both of which help companies and people develop.

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