The Covid-19 Lessons That Business Leaders Should Keep After the Pandemic
April 30, 2021
Director, Inclusive Business Action Network
Topicscollaboration, empathy, leaders, Leadership, leadership lessons, pandemic, remote teams, social purpose, teams
Good leadership skills may differ across businesses, yet few of these skills prepared leaders to manage the turmoil over the past year. The pandemic has shown that leadership skills fundamentally matter, and also highlighted what leadership skills are particularly important in navigating uncertainty – in politics, business, and in our personal lives. So, what has made some people respond to the unprecedented changes of the pandemic better than others?
Ideas of what constitutes a good leader have changed in the pandemic world, for the better. Gone are the days of equating winning only with profit and equating leadership only with assertiveness. We have learnt that collaboration, support networks, and creativity is fundamental. The pandemic has opened our eyes to the role that companies can play in delivering social value, and the lessons we can draw from this can help innovate mainstream business strategy even after the pandemic is over.
Aligning business models with social purpose
By embracing social purpose, business leaders can better anticipate new market needs as well as mitigate against risks to their core business. The pandemic forced business to be more open to innovation. For instance, car manufacturers such as GM and Ford modified their production lines to manufacture medical devices like ventilators. Likewise, ride-sharing giants, Uber and Lyft are currently offering free rides to vaccination centres. These efforts are (theoretically) more than just publicity stunts; they are win-win outcomes for business and society.
For larger companies, this mindset shows the potential of repurposing existing skills within the business towards solving emerging challenges. For smaller businesses that might not be able to make such major pivots, there may be scope to identify new market opportunities and move quickly to experiment with new business models. By embracing a creative mindset and a “moral imagination”, a company can be both ethical and successful even after the pandemic.
Embracing empathy within teams
The pandemic has forced a massive shift in how we work. Many workers had to quickly adjust to homeworking and connecting virtually, while many more were furloughed or laid off. Business leaders had to quickly develop an open-minded mindset to remote ways of working.
After the pandemic, these new hybrid ways of working will require greater emphasis by leaders to foster a shared sense of purpose. One way is by creating a safe space for teams to discuss ideas, listen to varying viewpoints, and exercise empathy.
The implications of failing to do so are becoming abundantly clear. For instance, KPMG’S UK chairman was forced to resign after telling staff to “stop moaning” when they raised concerns over their well-being during the pandemic.
This example also highlights just how urgent the issue of well-being is and will continue to be. A survey by the recruitment agency Adecco of 8,000 staff in eight countries, found that 28% of their employees said their mental health deteriorated during the pandemic, and only one in 10 managers exceeded their expectations.
What’s required now is an effort from leaders to create lasting conditions that prioritise the mental health of employees, which in turn drives high performing teams. By embracing “soft skills” and a more empathetic mindset, leaders can listen and guide their employees through ongoing uncertainty.
Resetting the ‘zero sum’ mentality
In seeking to embrace a social purpose and cultivate soft skills, it matters that leaders shift their mindset from the traditional win/lose, zero-sum mentality that is prevalent in business, and look beyond quarter-by-quarter results for something more meaningful. Now is the time to rethink what it means to be winning.
We need to think beyond zero-sum mindsets and instead seek to create collective value in a world increasingly waking up to systemic challenges like climate change, finite natural resources and growing inequality and conflict. One example is that by adopting cleaner technologies, businesses are generating profit, better jobs, and having positive impacts on the environment. They are also keeping their staff happy, which in turn is good for business. It takes cooperation across the team to sustain purpose. A recent study by Deloitte found that purpose-driven companies have higher productivity and growth rates, along with a more engaged workforce. If purpose over profits can improve productivity, this could be a winning strategy.
As the Covid vaccine roll-out begins in haste, it would be all too easy to start eyeing a return to business as usual. Let’s ensure the valuable lessons learnt from the pandemic can be part of how we “build forward better”.