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Post-Pandemic Leadership and Cultural Transformation

Post-Pandemic Leadership and cultural transformation

In a recent webinar, co-hosted by Odgers Connect and Odgers Interim, we were delighted to be joined by Tracey Groves, Partner at StoneTurn, and Jordan Barry, Chief People Officer at the Motor Insurance Bureau, for a lively and exploratory discussion focusing on post-pandemic leadership, the concept of the Ethical Leader, and culture transformation. In this article, Adam Gates, Head of Odgers Connect, reflects on the insights and learnings from the event.

It is fair to say that the global pandemic has had a vast and lasting impact on how leaders lead. It has been a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented magnitude, which has recalibrated people’s view on their working life. With many businesses unlikely to revert to type and enforce a 5-day office working week, leaders across all industries are grappling with ways in which they lead in this “new normal”.

Everyone can and should be an Ethical Leader

In our recent discussions and subsequent event with Tracey, we have explored the ‘Ethical Leader’, a term that should, at least in theory, be a given when assessing the capabilities of a business leader. As a knock-on effect from the pandemic, we are seeing mass cultural transformation with businesses assessing their values, purpose, and identity. As a leader, doing the right thing and leading with dignity and integrity has become an equal to strong commercial performance. Leaders are catalysts as well as symbols for effective and good decision making. They should be led by a set of principles that governs decisions, aligns what they say with what they do, and most importantly expresses care about the effect of what they do on others.

How is the role of the Chief People Officer shifting?

As part of the discussions, we also gained valuable insights from Jordan Barry as an industry expert people and culture leader. The role of the CPO is increasingly pivotal to this cultural shift in leadership and how it cascades across a business. The CPO is the conscience of the organisation, the heartbeat and barometer for what the workforce feels and thinks, and often the person who calls out the things in the business that many might find uncomfortable.

Every organisation wants a great culture, but to achieve this it is the behaviours at the top table that make this happen. Getting alignment is often the top challenge for the CPO, as there is a fine balance between creating a harmonious and inclusive culture and commercial performance. In any change programme, there will be different groups of people, and some will understand the importance of these changes, whereas some might find it harder to adjust. Delivering tangible results in short timescales is often asked of CPOs.

At the height of the pandemic, this has been magnified, and there are ongoing struggles in businesses to understand and achieve a perfect culture for their business. Leaders must often live and feel the values and ethics of a business for them to become real. There has always been vision-setting, but now leaders need to get on with it, sponsor the change, and demonstrate strong, clear, and honest leadership in a more empathic way.

Culture change is difficult – but vital

When exploring leadership and culture in a post-pandemic world, businesses must first acknowledge that cultural change is far from easy and often a time-intensive process that often requires a high sense of accountability, transparency, and openness to change. Getting an executive team onto the same page when discussing culture and leadership is the million-dollar task.

As the Covid pandemic has ripped through society over the last 18 months, presenting challenge to every way in which we work and live, we have seen leaders struggle to evolve. This is likely to continue, however, there is no one-size-fits-all roadmap to solve these challenges. Every business is different and requires agile leaders to adapt to the pulse of the workforce.

Tracey explained what organisations are asking of her and it is ultimately what is expected of leaders. With a global crisis at hand, leaders have understandably struggled to complete personal and business challenges over a sustained period of uncertainty, and often, these personal challenges permeate into the workplace. However, what we have learnt is that it is ok to show vulnerability as a leader. It is part of being a human being. Vulnerability, demonstrating care for others, or not having all the answers is not a weakness, but rather seen as a more authentic leadership style than the stoicism of the old, traditional, hard-line leader. Leaders demonstrating compassion and explicit care for their employees are more likely to achieve strong followership and engagement scores. And while there is an ongoing education process with leaders that these values and practices are indeed a symbol of strength, the challenge to make leaders feel and experience it, as opposed to purely conceptualising it, remains.  

Learnings from the pandemic

Good leaders have always acknowledged and recognised the contribution of others. However, during the pandemic, and as we slowly recover from the crisis, leaders will need to step up even more. Employees will have witnessed good and bad leadership through the pandemic and will increasingly be more cognisant of what good leadership looks like, as well as being more intolerant of poor leadership. 

During the height of the pandemic, trust was critical for leaders; trust in their top team, trust in their senior management below, and trust in themselves. An understanding of strengths and weaknesses around the top table is imperative, as is working together in a cohesive way – this is achieved through honesty and clear communication, operating ethically.

The next run down is equally important: equipping line managers and harmonising the functional teams is often the point where culture change becomes more challenging and where good leadership is paramount. This is the confluence of culture and performance improvement on which most employees base their sentiment of organisations and experience. During the pandemic, front line managers had to learn new skills to have productive conversations about performance, capability, as well as mental health and wellbeing with their teams. This often resulted in a reprioritisation, for example, a slowdown of strategic work, and more onus on staying connected, looking out for each other, and maintaining performance.

Tracey explained how all managers need good emotional intelligence, especially now. Organisations should have frameworks in place for line managers to ensure sufficient focus on key and (sometimes) basic performance priorities. This is likely to be a moving target, due to the changing nature of the pandemic and lockdowns, however, there are best practices that should be embedded into working practice long-term. Echoing this sentiment, Jordan talked about the establishment of ‘rituals’, whereby a consistent message is communicated through different channels, be that a town hall or daily meetings to check in on each other. Whatever method a leader or organisation chooses the crucial element for long-lasting connectivity and team culture remains an empathic and engaged leader, who is not afraid to be vulnerable themselves and focuses instead on leading by example.  

Should culture come from the top or the bottom?

Leaders have been building new muscles over the last 18 months, and authentic and ethical leadership needs to be continuously practiced, so that in time it becomes automatic and habitual. To achieve authentic culture, Tracey and Jordan agreed that this needs to come from the top-down AND the bottom-up.

If it is too top-down, it can be perceived as command and control, if it is too bottom-up, it can be at odds with the company strategy and too disruptive. It requires co-creation. At the same time, organisations need to ensure cultural sensitivities, and the culture should be relevant to the organisation. It may require a redesign of the values of the business, which will underpin the company strategy. This can then be rolled out from the top and bottom of the organisation, establishing ground rules and accountability, so that employees feel a sense of ownership. It needs to permeate through the middle of an organisation effectively, often the most influential but also less malleable.

Leaders who can illuminate the art of the possible and find personal connections will ultimately inspire employees, much in the same way a teacher can inspire a classroom with authenticity and passion.

How can culture and leadership be measured?

Whether culture and leadership can be measured, and if so, how, is often the crux of the problem. It is generally seen as too intangible and therefore difficult to measure, especially as every business is different.

However, it is important to find some way to measure both, as they often define mission and objectives of a company. We also know that strong culture and values will attract top talent, especially as we enter a post-pandemic economy where employees are scrutinising the purpose of a business more than ever before. Employees will need to feel valued and respected, and much of this comes from the calibre of the leadership. Some leaders are not up to it and find this challenging, so there does need to be a way of recognizing who can adapt and change and who cannot.

Data is the solution for many business challenges, and leadership and culture are no different. We know from research that organisations that invest in culture outperform their competition by 30%. From that we can also infer that culture is one of the biggest factors when attracting talent and even more important when retaining talent.

But how do you measure something that you often cannot see? There are issues with measuring culture, as it is unique to the organisation, which begs the question what it is measured against? We can however assess culture against the aspirations of the organisation, what does it want to look like and how close is it to achieving that now? To do this, we need good definitions and clear aims.

Measurement will therefore be contextual, based on a consistent set of data. It is important to get clarity on what the business is trying to assess and put some indices and metrics against that. Behaviours for example can be more tangible than culture which can be amorphous. Broken down, this could be how we engage and communicate, how we present good messages and respond to bad messages, or what we define as good leadership behaviours. We can assess those behaviours and benchmark them, which provides rich data that can be used to measure them further down the line. Critically, some data may not be what the leadership wants to see, but if this is ignored it is a slippery slope which leads to lack of trust and poor performance.

Data in an HR context for a CPO is often lacking. However, using tools such as Gallup can evolve company dashboards and allow businesses to benchmark themselves against the world’s best organisations and not just their immediate competition.

Elevating Emotional Intelligence to Emotional Agility

People become leaders often due to demonstrating good emotional intelligence (EQ), amongst other traits. This is described as the awareness of own emotions and whether we use them as a force for good. It is also the awareness of others’ emotions and our ability to read their surroundings. Emotional Agility is the natural evolution, it is the ability to be fully present in one’s own emotions and having the courage to show up and then step back to reflect and respond to them.

It is not always about being positive. Good emotional agility is to accept that all people are different and that their emotions drive their behaviour. Emotional agility can serve others as well as oneself and can change behaviours as a consequence of emotions.

This is new muscle learning for leaders, as Tracey explains. The pandemic has changed lives and how we work. Employees want more and more connection to colleagues and leaders. Leaders therefore need to unlearn and relearn, adapting to this new normal we are experiencing. There is no silver bullet for this, and it is hard, no doubt about that.

As all leaders are finding their way through this change, the courageous ones are using a trial-and-error process to learn from failing. The consistent trait however must be ethics, and those leaders demonstrating strong values, transparency, and leading with dignity, are most likely to succeed.

If you are interested in these findings and would like to connect with Tracey or Jordan, please do get in touch with Adam Gates at adam.gates@odgers.com.

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