Leadership Mentor Simon Lawder shares his reflections on the current challenge facing leaders:
Some say there is nothing new to be said about leadership, a ‘naturally occurring human activity’ that dates back to the year Dot. After all this time, you would have thought that we would have cracked it. And yet, there appears to be a limitless appetite for new perspectives, new formulae, new measurement tools.
Why? Simple – leadership is about inspiring and meeting the expectations of people, who have an irritating habit of changing their mind. And, after the biggest shake-up in the way we live, in the course of a mere eighteen months, they have changed their mind again. This time, they have turned a few old truths on their head.
If leaders don’t sit up, take notice, learn and respond, they will turn round and see no one behind them.
And, as we all know, a leader with no followers is a voice in the wilderness
Among the 101 ways of defining leadership, I prefer the one that, for me, keeps it simple (Not that other, more complex definitions don’t have my undying respect, it’s just that this one suits me):
Management is about:
- Planning & budgeting
- Organising & staffing
- Controlling & problem solving
- Predictability & order
While Leadership is concerned with:
- People, people, people . . .
- Establishing direction
- Aligning people
- Motivating & inspiring
Another one that always brings me back to earth is:
“Managing-for-today is Management. Managing-for-tomorrow is Leadership.” John Kotter, Harvard Business School.
I’ve met him, by the way. Please excuse the name-dropping.
Aligning people, motivating and inspiring, change – please note that none of these involve telling people what to do (except when the building is on fire or the enemy has started to attack, but that’s another blog topic).
No matter how impressive the title on your business card may be, your task, as a leader, is all to do with asking, listening, persuading, giving meaning to your people’s work.
These are the kind of skills that few of us are blessed with from birth. The kind of skills that, once acquired, have to be constantly updated, for one simple reason – the people under your leadership are constantly updating themselves.
I often wonder why the UK shows up so badly in the international productivity league. The quality of our leaders, and their unhelpful behaviour, could well provide us with a clue.
Which brings us back to the last task in the above list – Change. If there is one word that is synonymous with the world of leadership, it’s Change.
Every organisation is a living thing surrounded by many other living things, commonly called stakeholders, such as customers, suppliers, distributors, shareholders, investors/lenders, employees and let’s not forget, the community at large – your organisation is a just as much a citizen and you are as an individual. But again, that’s for another LMI UK blog.
Each of those stakeholders is in a constant state of change as their world changes around them. Each of them has a right to change their own expectations of you and your organisation and to let you know.
The problem is that far too many heads of companies do not take the trouble to ask.
It will not surprise you to learn that, right now, it could be said that,
‘Never in the field of human society has so much been changed for so many in so few (months).’
The pandemic has had a devastating effect on our self-confidence, our assumptions, our relationships, our sense of security, our hopes and fears.
Let us take a stakeholder rollcall:
- Customers – in the retail world, many stores are no longer sales outlets but showrooms, where the customer can look, touch, feel and then leave to order online. In business-to-business, with certain notable exceptions, your old customers have taken a massive hit, and will take time to restore their buying patterns to the old ways. You as leader need to be patient, demonstrate that you understand and that you are all in this together. Offer help through adjusting your payment terms, for example.
- Suppliers – stories abound of shortages of raw materials and components, shortages of staff after the mass exodus of east European workers, shortages of cashflow, all very real challenges for your suppliers. The last thing they need is you, ranting down the phone at them, threatening to delist them.
Suppliers are a key part of your team; without their goodwill, your business will struggle. They will pull the stops out for those customers who treat them correctly, at the costly expense of the shouters. Wouldn’t you do the same in their place?
- Distributors – Throughout lockdown, Amazon has sucked the life out of many High Streets as well as hiring many thousands of employees who were on furlough to drive their vans, leaving sectors like retail and hospitality businesses unable to find the staff they need if they are to offer the quality of service their customers have a right to expect. Again, sympathise; this is a team effort – offer help, use your own contacts, work with them.
- Shareholders/investors/lenders – banks and other lenders are flush with funds right now but at the same time, they are tightening up on the security they set against the increased loan they offer to help you through your current cashflow problems. One day, we can be absolutely certain, the crazy spiralling of property values will suffer what they calmly refer to as a ‘correction’. Which means the value of your house will nosedive. It’s happened before, overnight. How will your huge bank loan look then?
Show them you are being cautious. Too many businesspeople think that, if they stay quiet, the banks will leave them alone. Wrong. Talk to them; banks like nothing less than a customer who doesn’t keep them in touch.
- Your employees – where shall we start? Their sense of job security has been ripped from under their feet; many of them have been stuck at home, with an equally worried partner, and squabbling kids. Their nerves are shredded. Have you stayed in touch? When you hold a Zoom meeting, how much time do you devote to enquiring about your colleagues’ welfare? You want them back in the office/plant but concerns about crowded public transport and poorly ventilated rooms are the talk of the town right now.
As a leader, being seen as a caring employer has never been more critical than now.
Despite what Number 10 says, in far too many ways, life has very definitely not returned to normal and, I would venture to say it never will.
New game, new rules. Slow, slow, quick, quick?
This slide was probably created in the 1980’s but its essential message is so relevant to our Post-Pandemia world that it bears even closer examination today. And these emotional responses to the need for change apply just as much to you, the leader as to your people.
It also dictates how much of your own time you should spend helping your people to adapt when you are driving a change programme.
Leave others to adjust the systems, to reformulate processes, to develop the new marketing plan, sales strategy – all strictly conforming, of course, to your new, exciting Post-Pandemia vision for the business – to the roadmap that you as leader can see so clearly. Your prime responsibility is people.
Start to recognise that each of the mood swings depicted above takes time, which in turn calls for understanding and patience. Stay calm, gather your most adaptable colleagues around you and support those who are struggling. Some you will find frustrating but remember that they are essentially good people – they just need a little longer.
Don’t rush it. You will lose some of them along the way but most of the strugglers will respond loyally to a boss who has demonstrated concern for their welfare.
By which time, the Next Normal may well have kicked in.
Tougher than you thought? Good. That is why you are paid more than the others.
It is all too easy for us to be seduced by the prophets of doom, casting blame on the government, the weather, the young, the old, the ‘idle benefit scroungers’, the anti-vaccers – you name it. These people will never accept that is has anything to do with them, that this pandemic has brought about the most devastating social and economic upheaval in peacetime for centuries.
Look, we are where we are, and we just damn well have to get on with it.
There is no limit to the capacity of the human brain to devise creative solutions, after examining all the evidence, asking all the right questions, and rearranging their pins to fit the new map.
It’s just that very few people do it. If only they would realise that it really is quite simple.
All that is required is:
- A brain
- A clear picture of the way things were Pre-Pandemia – which means data, data, data, plus not just who bought what, but why
- An informed picture of what and who has changed, why and where (Zoom means you can open up new markets almost anywhere without going there)
- An educated guess as to which changes in behaviour are here to stay and which are short-term responses
- A brainstorm approach to where and how the skills of your people and your plant can, with only a few tweaks, be adapted to new, relatively under-supplied markets
There, that was not too difficult, was it?
Simon Lawder (https://leader-mentoring.com)
Former CEO of the largest ad agency west of London, leadership mentor to directors at several multinational companies, leadership & change management course director at business schools in the UK and France. Author of three page-turner thriller