Sustaining Leadership—from hardware to heartware

So, what are you doing to support your team through Covid-19? Right now this is a crucial question facing leaders the world over. Amidst the lack of clarity over the future, one thing is certain: leaders must take constant action to care for their teams, help them deliver value and thereby safeguard long-term business recovery. If you help them, your team will not only deal with the current situation but will also help you and the business to find the way forward. Because this is not just a question of surviving the present, it’s also about thriving in the future.

So how can we best help our teams? According to MIT’s Kristine Dery, leader of an on-going study into remote and distributed work at 280 firms, leaders need to move beyond the rapid decisions and acute task-focus of crisis mode and use “sustaining” leadership to help employees to re-balance, re-focus and start planning for the future. Put simply, it’s a move from “hardware to heartware”. We know this is not always easy, but here are some tips to help you support your team effectively along this difficult journey to a brighter future.

Six Steps to Sustaining Leadership

1. Expect ups and downs

Though lockdown is easing, and the move back to the office has begun, a glance at news headlines is a harsh reminder that we are still nowhere near business as usual. And though we are farther down the road, we still don’t know how long it is or where it is actually taking us. In this situation it is totally normal for us to cycle through different emotions such as shock, anger, denial, sadness and fear of the future. Team members may be also be dealing with grief at losing a family member. We all react differently, and though some team members may be more affected than others, sooner or later everyone will hit down days when they feel sad, restless or worried.

Keep a close lookout for how your team members are feeling and search for warning signs such as sudden changes in performance, or uncharacteristic behaviours like not answering messages, not contributing in meetings or sounding irritable or apathetic. Be ready to step in early to help. Often just being there to listen is enough. Other times you may need to ease or flex people’s workload or partner them with other team members to help motivate them.

2. Check in with, not check up on

Stop checking up on your team members and instead start regularly checking in with them on an individual basis. Task-focused micromanaging wastes time and hinders growth—take this opportunity to replace it with more useful one-on-one conversations. Personal dialogues build trust and allow leaders to better understand personal or business challenges or even generate ideas for the future. And that’s not all. According to another MIT survey of over 400 organizations to measure the effectiveness of company initiatives in response to Covid-19, regular one-on-one check-ins by managers to see how their employees were doing personally and professionally were the most effective step to battle isolation, scoring much higher than other initiatives such as virtual coffees, lunches and team happy hours.

Remember though that one size doesn’t fit all. While extroverts may be happy to share their feelings, introverts may not want to have such close conversations. Allow people space if they need it, but let them know your door is open—and that they are free to drop you a line when they like.

Ask team members: How are you doing? What’s one thing you‘re happy about? What’s weighing on your mind right now? What one thing can I do to help? The very act of listening shows your team that you care for and value them.

3. Enable your team—look out for obstacles!

Whether it’s dealing with home schooling, an uncomfortable chair or problems accessing company systems, there’s no doubt about it, office working has suddenly got way harder for everyone. Remote working has quickly shown up new problems, but even more importantly, it has also highlighted existing issues, such as slow decision-making, silos or hoarding information. Things that people were able to influence via informal corridor conversations have now become much harder to resolve. But as a leader your primary responsibility is to scan for and smooth out the obstacles or “speed bumps” that are preventing your team from getting their job done.

Show that you are there to help: Set clear priorities and leave the rest; delegate and avoid being a bottle-neck. Now is not the time for perfection. Hold short daily team meetings. What’s going well? What’s not going well? Tell me one thing I can do to help?

Allow the team to help each other by strengthening informal channels. For example, some companies set up Slack channels or WhatsApp groups, deliberately excluding the boss so that they can discuss things or ask each other for tips—all things that would normally happen at the coffee machine or over lunch.

4. Help your team avoid burn-out

And whether out of a sense of duty or a desire to be seen pulling their weight, many people are not doing just their best – they are actually overperforming. A study by NordVPN found that remote workers in Europe have been logged on for two more hours per day during the quarantine than they were before the lockdown. This is quite simply unsustainable. Overworking leads to careless mistakes, destroys creativity and will eventually damage productivity, and worse still, cause burn-out. Take proactive steps to end Permawork. Agree priorities with your team, allow flexibility and help them understand that they need to say No in order to balance their professional and personal lives.

Major organizations such as Google and Cisco recognize the real dangers of burn-out and have taken the unprecedented step of giving all employees extra days off. As Cisco Chief People Officer Francine Katsoudas said in her mail to all staff, “There are so many reasons not to take a day off— there are few places to go, people need us. Yet there is one reason to unplug: ourselves”. Make sure your team is aware of support services your company offers such as internal coaching or tele-counselling services.

5. Be positive and maintain team morale

While being honest and transparent in your communication, try to remain positive. Remind your team that you are still pursuing the same business vision and mission of serving customers and society—you are just taking a detour. Reinforce morale by recognizing new skills and learnings gained from the situation, celebrating achievements, and sharing positive feedback. Boost endorphins through humour or team events and have a “no politics” rule to avoid escalating discussion. Be extra careful to keep your team united as some members stay at home while others return.

Remember that little things can make a big difference. One of our clients has sent all employees a company mug, another sends Deliveroo vouchers every Friday, while another sends employees a basket of fruit every month. All small, relatively inexpensive actions that can transmit a real sense of belonging and being cared for. The message, as Arne Sorensen, CEO of Marriot hotels expressed so movingly to his staff, is that “together we can, and we will overcome this, and we will thrive again”.

6. Look after yourself as leader

Your first and foremost job as a leader is to take charge of your own energy and then help to orchestrate the energy of those around you”.
― Peter F. Drucker

No one expects leaders to show no emotion about the current situation. In fact the opposite is true—showing vulnerability is a sign of shared humanity and fosters connection. Bear in mind, however, that your teams are “watching” you to follow your emotional cue and see how confident you are about the future. If you find yourself “stuck”, then activities like Mindfulness, listening to music or any physical movement are good to help you transition to a more positive state. Avoid burn-out—model the positive behaviours you want to see! Make sure to sleep, get exercise and free up time for strategic thinking and contemplation. You can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself. And remember you are not alone in this; talk to other leaders inside and outside your organization to share lessons learned or brainstorm solutions.

Take the opportunity

Finally, though these times pose an unprecedented challenge, they are also an opportunity for you to build trust and help your team grow. Supporting your people through adversity means better performance now, more loyalty in the future and better readiness for recovery. As Eric McNulty of Harvard’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative says, “The actions of executives and their teams now, in the midst of this crisis, will significantly determine their fate”. So, think about it: What will your team say when asked how their leader helped them during Covid-19?

Find out more about our leadership and coaching programmes.