Effective leadership development for the new normal

The world of work has changed almost unrecognisably because of Covid, says Marie-Therese Claes, so managers’ skillsets will also need to evolve

A year on from the beginning of the Covid pandemic and we are awakening to a new world. The forces of the industrial revolution 4.0 that had already been driving us towards a new way of working have taken on a seismic impetus. 

A new report from CEMS – Leadership in a Post-Covid-19 World – sheds light on some of the key challenges facing leaders and leadership development at a time of unprecedented uncertainty. Major research conducted for the report found that, for 87 per cent of respondents, Covid has profoundly affected business and teams. The majority of respondents believe that change will be long in duration, and possibly permanent. It will be focused in four key areas: 

  • New markets: a shift from global to local
  • New ways of communicating: from face to face to digital
  • New ways of working: from fixed to flexible; office to anywhere 
  • New attitudes towards work: from tried and tested to agile and resilient

For that change to be positive, effective leadership will be critical. Across the board respondents spoke of a need to balance ‘traditional’ leadership qualities with more ‘human’ characteristics. While things like strategic vision and focus on results remain important, other qualities such as empathy, the ability to communicate and resilience, in particular, are more highly valued than before. 

There will also be a need for faster decision making and greater resilience from leaders, and agility will be required from employees to seek out growth opportunities. With that in mind, organisations and leaders must build psychological safety for their people to be their best selves and to thrive under pressure. They must embrace a culture where learning from failure is seen as equally valuable as learning from success, where people are empowered to experiment, try new approaches, build new skills and accept responsibility without blame.

Lessons for HR

Here are a few ideas for how HR teams within organisations can implement these recommendations:

  • Ensure all senior leaders in the company undertake specific training on how to help employees maintain emotional wellbeing and work remotely.
  • Invite guest speakers from inside and outside the business to share their personal leadership stories, focusing both on success and how they have grown from failures.
  • Establish cross-functional scrums and learning circles to work on cross-company issues – for example, a new strategy – and let everyone take responsibility. 
  • Empower learners as co-creators of their own development, in particular encouraging peer learning, mentoring and feedback to drive autonomy, introspection and vicarious learning.
  • Create specific next-generation leadership training tailored to leadership skills in a hybrid post-Covid workplace. Focus on resilience, empathy and cross-team communications in a digital age, but also the practical and technical tools modern leaders need to be agile.
  • Integrate growth mindset as a topic within training or management programmes to develop the skills of introspection and reflection.
  • Initiate mentoring and reverse mentoring programmes, through which young professionals and senior leaders can learn from each other and feel that their voices are heard.
  • Run recreational meetings such as virtual lunches, quizzes and cook offs to help create the social workplace experience online and generate a vital sense of community.

As Professor Greg Whitwell, chair of CEMS and dean of the University of Sydney Business School, says: “Organisations that respond to crises with creativity and agility, taking their customers and the workforce along with them, are the ones that will thrive post Covid-19.”

Marie-Therese Claes is professor of gender and diversity in organisations at Vienna University of Economics and Business