Leading with The Head & The Heart – The ultimate balancing act for leaders during the pandemic.
For many of us, leadership is something that happens organically over the course of our career.
Often in our first job we start out as an individual contributor and as our career advances, we take on our first direct report. Years tick by quickly and before long, we find we have large teams reporting into us; all of whom have an expectation of us as leaders.
This has never been truer than right now, across Australia. Leaders are being asked to step up and manage through ambiguity; dealing with complex psychological impacts experienced by employees, while navigating their organisation’s acceleration out of the pandemic.
In this article, I explore what comes next. What are some of the themes that leaders need to be thinking about – and implementing – as they lead through, and in the aftermath, of the COVID-19 pandemic?
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Who are you, really?
As Dorothy clicked her ruby slippers together and chanted, “there’s no place like home”, we caught glimpses of her home and her family.
I may have substituted ruby slippers for Uggs, but one thing is true, everybody I’ve had virtual meetings with since March has been let into my home. They’ve heard my Weimaraner hunting dogs barking madly each time the front doorbell rings, they’ve heard my husband asking what we’re having for dinner, and they’ve even seen me “fresh faced” (aka no makeup).
Leadership through the pandemic has been human. The doors have been opened wide and every leader has been asked to share who they are, when titles and hierarchies are stripped away.
And while this can be confronting, it’s also an opportunity to reset; to invest time in cultivating open, compassionate conversations about the effect that the pandemic has had on us individually and as a team. It’s important that we validate that there is an emotional impact and normalise that it’s okay for this to be a topic of discussion in the workplace.
For many of us, myself included, our careers were born in industries and workplaces where not showing emotion was a good thing. But times have changed, and employees want to see leaders demonstrate awareness, vulnerability and empathy. When my team ask me, “how are you going, Mel?” what they’re really asking me for is a personal story or insight into my life, right now.
And so while we share our personal stories about how we’re feeling, what’s going on in our family unit and how we’re managing at work, our role should also exhibit a deliberate calm and bounded optimism. After all, teams want to know that we’re realistic about the challenges ahead and have confidence that the organisation will find its way through the crisis.
Are you OK?
Quite profoundly, this pandemic has provided a historic opportunity to overcome the stigma of mental and emotional health issues as taboo topics for workplace discussion, as well as the feelings of isolation amongst team members living alone, and where work may provide a key source of community for them.
Before thinking about bringing employees back into the office, leaders should seek to understand employees’ psychology and prepare accordingly. Some will be enthusiastic about returning to the office while others will not want to venture back yet and feel a sense of anxiety and panic if forced to do so.
How do you get a pulse check? Consider surveying your team to get a sense of who wants to come back as soon as possible and who will need more time to be comfortable. Focus on psychological readiness and find ways to identify – and remedy – practical concerns.
Like many organisations, at ME Bank our leaders have widely and frequently communicated the free and confidential Employee Assistance Program (EAP) available to employees and their immediate family members. This act recognises and addresses the core human emotions of grief, loss and anxiety in the workplace, and it also provides an opportunity to rebuild organisational health, productivity and talent retention.
What will day 1 look like?
It’s important that day 1 back in the office is optimistic.
I’m based in Melbourne so that day still feels some time away… But the type of things we’ve been planning at ME Bank include a welcome back kit, consisting of what employees need to navigate the new normal (including a ME-branded face mask!).
During the re-entry phase, it’s important that the focus of communication remains on the well-being of employees, not work. But this isn’t to say that in this period, nobody’s working. Quite the opposite. Communication is about the well-being of people. And well-being at work is often grounded in having a sense of purpose. It’s what can help employees navigate high levels of uncertainty and change and ensure that they direct their efforts towards high value activities.
As we experience stage 4 lockdowns in Melbourne, my whole team is wondering what the rest of the year will look like. Will we be back in the office before Christmas? Will we be with family at Christmas? These are very reasonable questions and the answer is anyone’s guess. And so, to focus my team on work during this uncertainty, I’ve chosen to break down what they need to deliver in a really simple way. That is, from now until Christmas, these are the customers we’re helping and here’s how. By rallying around our company purpose (to help all Australians get ahead), simplifying the plan (here’s what we’re doing to help customers) and placing a timeframe on delivery (now to Christmas) the team is able to more readily engage in the work, despite the pandemic that ensues around us.
How does culture exist in a hybrid workplace?
It’s been largely documented that as the pandemic begins to ease, many companies are planning a new combination of working from home (WFH) and working in the office.
As leaders, our opportunity is to build this hybrid model in a way that creates a connected, shared culture for our teams, where social cohesion, identity, and belonging is fostered, regardless of whether our employees are WFH or in the office.
It’s a challenge, but I think as leaders our role needs to shift towards guiding, coaching, inspiring, and enabling our teams to solve problems rapidly from a customer perspective. Essentially, making sure each team knows what they’re responsible for delivering, who’s the decision maker in the team, and then getting out of their way so they can focus on outcomes and outputs.
But it can’t be all work and no play. At ME Bank we have a “Friday night mixer” – once per month, all food and booze laid on, for a mere gold coin donation to charity at the door. This simple ritual is one that is familiar and much-loved amongst ME Bank employees. In our new normal, we’ll need to think about how we’ll rebuild old rituals and create new ones.
Where are we going?
Times are uncertain and as leaders we don’t have all the answers, but as long as we communicate openly and candidly, employees will respect being brought into the conversation.
Consider sharing execution plans broadly with all levels of employees, to gain input and engage teams on the challenges the organisation faces. Share the story of your organisation’s journey ahead. Explain how you’re planning to navigate your team / your department / your organisation and why it will be worth it, to help anxious employees understand what the future looks like. Muster your energy and enthusiasm because it’s your clear and inspiring communication that will be central to making this next unsteady phase a success!
Who’s coming with me?
Nobody can navigate this pandemic alone. And that’s why it’s crucial we continue to build adaptive, resilient leaders within our teams, as well as an employee-base fluent in technology.
This year we have seen the performance edge gained by organisations and leaders with adaptable management and strong capabilities. These leaders have understood what information is relevant, encouraged simpler approval chains, and placed the best talent against critical challenges. In a post-pandemic era, leaders who enable teams that can embrace new ways of working and leverage technology will thrive, while maintaining their own personal energy and balance.
Who’s done it well? Clearly, I’m going to say the banking industry. But in all seriousness, banks have done a phenomenal job of mobilising teams and technology to support high volumes of impacted customers in compressed timeframes, to provide peace of mind via repayment pauses on their home loans, personal loans and credit cards.
Likewise, telcos were quick to respond and keep Australians connected. Not only with hardship provisions, but with assistance funds to support low-income households, school aged children and small and medium businesses, to name a few customer-segments. It’s unfair to call out only two industries when so many businesses, both big and small, have innovated during this period and are well set-up to accelerate in the aftermath of the pandemic. The commonality, I think, across all these businesses and organisations has been truly understanding – and empathising – with the customer’s problem. And then empowering teams to deliver customer outcomes, drawing on all of the organisation’s resources.
Where to next?
The pandemic has brought with it an operating environment most of us have never experienced. We’ve been a “rock” in our organisation at a time that’s been fraught with anxiety and uncertainty. And at the same time, we’ve shown-up personally; being vulnerable, empathetic, and making decisions in accordance with our values.
Our teams have expected us to be transparent as leaders, to have a grip on the situation, and to be reasonable about what we do know, what we don’t know, and what we’re doing about it. Sure, we can always do more and do better, but let’s pause for a moment to reflect on what we’ve achieved during this pandemic and acknowledge we’re doing OK as leaders.
And let’s also remember that we’re not alone. It’s important that we communicate more, and expand our networks, in part because other leaders are confronting the pandemic too and can identify with today’s leadership challenges that we ourselves are facing. This shared experience connects us and by talking with each other, enriches our perspective.
Thanks for your time – at what is a demanding time. I wish you every success as you continue to lead your teams through (the crazy year that is) 2020.
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Melody is the General Manager of Brand & Marketing at ME Bank; a bank that is 100% owned by 26 of Australia’s leading industry super funds. As a senior marketer, Melody has worked with local and global brands in automotive, freight and logistics, e-commerce, retail and financial services.
At ME, Melody is responsible for brand strategy, marketing communications, sponsorships, events & partnerships