Businesses have put managers through formal management and leadership programmes for many years as part of their formal succession planning activities.
However, things have changed significantly since the Covid-19 pandemic impacted on the way we work. This means we now need to lead in a very different way.
So, what does this mean for the way in which we equip our future leaders to take our businesses forward?
Traditionally, businesses either sent staff with leadership potential on external management and leadership courses or brought the training in-house. This may have consisted of a series of modules or an extended programme with written assignments; projects; involvement in support and challenge groups; and maybe even secondments to other parts of a business.
They were often classroom based, possibly residential and sometimes involve an outward-bound element to test people’s ability to lead and solve problems under pressure and in challenging situations.
There may even have been psychometric assessments to find out what sort of leader the individuals were likely to be and whether they were more suited to management or leadership roles. But we now need to question whether this is still appropriate after the changes resulting from the pandemic.
What is the difference?
People often confuse management and leadership, but they are very different things.
The most important difference is that leadership always involves leading a group of people, whereas management may involve responsibility for things (for example marketing, finance, IT etc.) but not necessarily people. They also tend to involve different timescales for planning purposes (with leadership roles focusing on more longer-term plans and “big picture” outlooks.)
Many management roles do of course have major people-management responsibilities. In addition, you may find that there are informal leaders in an organisation – those people that others gravitate towards and follow naturally when there is no formal structure that requires it, for example union representatives.
Memorable leaders tend to be the ones who inspire and motivate people, for example Richard Branson or the late Anita Roddick, founders of the Virgin and Body Shop brands respectively. You would not think of them as managers, but leaders in their fields. It was their visionary approaches to their businesses and the fact that people wanted to follow them, that turned them into leaders.
How have things changed?
Leading people, when they were all in the same place and you could see them is one thing, but with the advent of much greater use of remote, hybrid and flexible working has meant that the strategy needs to change.
No longer might it be possible to gather staff together in one room to tell them your plans and encourage them to follow you. More consideration now needs to be given to timing of announcements, locations, the IT infrastructure (for your Teams, Zoom, Google Meet or other video platforms that you use for communications.)
That is something that can be planned for major meetings, but just as much weight should be given to the more informal interactions that need to take place for leaders to engage with their staff.
You can no longer just wander about the office having a chat with people or telling them that your, “door is always open”. More deliberate action must be taken to engage with everyone, to make them feel involved and valued (particularly if they normally work remotely or at different times from their colleagues).
When a new employee joins, it used to be the case that they were assigned a buddy to help them through the first week or so of them starting, to show them the ropes and provide informal interactions when their line manager was not around.
Now, that is more difficult as new employees may simply still be sitting at home and logged onto their computer. In that situation it is much harder to engage with a new employee, to make them feel part of the fabric of the business and connected with it.
In such circumstances it will therefore be more difficult to retain such employees as they will not feel the same degree of loyalty and association with the organisation. A good leader needs to generate that feeling of belonging and a desire to want to be part of the company’s future even though they are located at an arm’s length.
A radical overhaul of the traditional leadership training programmes is needed to help those with leadership aspirations understand the new business landscape. They will need to learn how to work with a new generation of staff to inspire them in new ways.
A lot of training modules put in place during the pandemic have been online by necessity, but if you are going to coach people to be excellent managers or leaders, there needs to be interactions with real people.
Therefore, if training cannot be arranged face-to-face, it has to be done by video conferencing at the very least.
In my view, such programmes should have mandatory modules on active listening because it has become too easy for people to “switch off” during calls with distractions from mobile phones and other devices.
Devoting time to listening and reflecting what you have heard back to employees is an absolute must if you are going to convince your employees that you are someone who cares about them and values their contribution to your business.
New leadership development training should involve more than just a regurgitation of management and leadership theories; it must encourage problem solving in real-life situations where employees are trying to do their jobs, whilst working flexibly to fit in their caring responsibilities or other duties.
Motivation and quiet quitting
If you have employees who no longer seem as engaged as they once were, or you sense a passive resistance to any changes you want to introduce, you may find that your staff are consciously disengaging.
This is where the active listening skills come to the fore as expert leaders will try to understand the root cause so that it can be addressed.
This phenomenon is not new, but it is easier for employees to adopt because those working remotely in particular are not as visible as they were and so it will take more effort from business leaders to motivate and engage staff for them to want to undertake the work needed. That will be key to being a successful leader.
Remember, you are only a leader if your staff want to follow you.
Author: Helen Astill, HR Solutions and Cherington HR
Helen was named HR Consulting MD of the Year in Acquisition International’s 2021 Influential Businesswoman’s Awards and has since been a finalist in the Herefordshire and Worcestershire’s Awards for both Professional Excellence and Excellence in Customer Service.
Posted on 1 November, 2022