2020 has shone a big spotlight on the power of intentional leadership and how important it is for our teams and organisational culture when uncertainty becomes the norm.

If there is one lesson to take out from the challenges that a COVID world has delivered, it’s that people within our organisations matter. They are the bedrock on which our business cultures function, shepherded by leaders and supported by frameworks, processes, methodologies, and other organisational mechanisms intended to deliver against a vast variety of outcomes.

And while it is true that Australia has fared far better than many other parts of the globe experiencing the COVID pandemic, it is also true that our leaders and people are exhausted by the relentless pace of change and the consequences of persistent uncertainty. As we approach the Christmas break, many are just looking forward to seeing the back of 2020.

If so many of us are exhausted now when the recovery is just starting in Australia, how can leaders and their people remain energised to keep going?

A check-in: How are we really faring?

In May this year, we hosted a cohort of Australian business leaders in a discussion around the impacts they were facing as the pandemic settled in for the duration.

Challenged to deliver a massive amount of change in a very short period of time to scale, downsize, or distribute teams, our discussion illuminated just how vital it was going to be to manage people in an effort to ‘get to the other side’ of the pandemic.

The session covered the criticality of managing morale and engagement, supporting new and returning staff, how to navigate the complexities of disrupted workplaces and dispersed teams, and sustain consistent performance in a time when uncertainty was a driving force. Underpinning all of it was workplace safety as staff transitioned to working from home (or in hybrid teams) and the mental well-being of people thrust into significant dislocation.

Just over six months on, our cohort has delivered significant and largely successful change into their organisations and teams at a scale they were perhaps not expecting or certainly not as smoothly. Many projects were brought forward or accelerated and there has been an ongoing effort to support their teams to adjust to persistent uncertainty about returning to the workplace. Many have also had to navigate new outbreaks of the COVID-19 virus and for our Victorian friends, a significant period of lockdown.

The hard and fast response to the early impacts of the virus on our communities—both work and at home—has had some positive impacts: many are faring better than expected at this point in the pandemic. Others have seen dispersed teams coalesce and find better ways of working such as virtual meetings, shared digital workspaces, one-to-one engagement, and ensuring that these online spaces were safe places to be. For other organisations, the recalibration of work has led to better efficiencies in not only which projects have been delivered, but at speed.

What seems to be consistent across these groups is the realities of being visible and proactive leaders amidst the rapid rates of change and an awareness that not everyone in their teams would be adapting well. As one participant put it:

We’ve had to get comfortable with the idea that nothing is certain anymore and that change is the only constant. We need to show up for our people – especially if we ask them to show up for the business. And that means more than the typical performance metrics: It also means we need to put greater emphasis on wellbeing – physical, mental, and in the workplace.*

* Note: In keeping with our session’s Chatham House Rules, we’re opting to keep our participant feedback anonymous.

Walking the walk

If there is one theme that has emerged as a vital part of helping our businesses and teams to cope and manage through 2020, it’s the impact and power of leading with intent—and leaders that walk the walk alongside their people have shown that while they can’t guarantee what the future will look like, they can show their people how to show up and stay in, as well as how to reach out when they are not coping.

Organisational culture has been a critical part of whether or not employees have swung behind their leadership teams. Given how toxic some environments can be, you might expect that  not to be true, but as a recent MIT Sloan article suggests, the quality of communication from leaders during the pandemic has been instrumental in positive employee sentiment.

As Simon Sinek puts it:

There are leaders and there are those who lead. Leaders hold a position of power or influence. Those who lead inspire us.”

Acknowledging that many people want a return to a sense of ‘normal’ nearly nine months on, leaders recognise that’s not possible because too much has changed. They also recognise that their teams want to understand what the future post-COVID could look like. It is inherently human to want and crave certainty.

That said, we expect a lot of leadership in difficult times and it can be both inspiring and frustrating when the impact of change hits our businesses and people hard. What employees and outsiders see is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the choices and decisions leaders have had to make, which can often have deeply personal consequences.

However, when leaders are willing to show up and be direct, honest, and clear about why certain decisions have to be made—and they do so in a compassionate way to the people who will be impacted by those decisions—they go a long way to alleviating the tension and pain that comes with unpopular or downright hard choices. If nothing else, honest, straightforward, and compassionate communication is a vital part of engendering trust among teams.

What we walk past, we condone.

One of the standards used in the military is the concept of “what we walk past we condone”. Given the recent independent inquiry into the behaviour of the SAS and Australian Defence Force leadership, it’s an illustration that when we look past or ‘don’t see’ errant or outright destructive behaviour, there can be serious consequences for the reputation of an organisation. The ADF has acknowledged that it has failed to address certain types of behaviour.

Leading from the front in times of failure is almost more important than in times of success because it allows those around in and around the organisation to see when ownership and accountability are at the forefront—it is, as Sinek says, an opportunity to demonstrate what we expect in times of crisis.

One of the upsides of the pandemic has been a reduced tolerance for operational and stakeholder malarkey and delays. Few of us in leadership roles or project-based environments have had the luxury of allowing stakeholders and delivery teams to thwart or create unnecessary politics around project delivery during the pandemic.

That’s not to say it hasn’t happened, but what we’ve found in our conversations with our participants is that there is a lesser likelihood to tolerate the cultural disrupters or obstructors when there is a project on the line that will support the organisation to get through the challenges and risks that COVID has introduced.

As Quay’s Rod Adams said in a recent podcast episode:

“2020 has been a very difficult year in terms of project delivery. All of a sudden, most projects have had to do as much, if not more, with less and that has meant that project leaders have had to take the opportunity – for want of a better term – to crash or crash through around a lot of delivery. In such unusual times, the behaviours of stakeholders, particularly those that have been suboptimal, have received far less patience [from leaders and project managers] around those behaviours, which has enabled projects to move ahead much quicker and more effectively because needs must.”

What lies ahead?

Nothing scuppers trust like leadership that looks like it’s trying to hide uncertainty or frame it in too positive a light – especially when there are clear impacts occurring within an organisation. Trust building comes from seeing leadership and integrity in action, where it’s possible to have hard conversations with compassion and honesty.

These are all tenets of intentional leadership and in months to come there will, without doubt, continue to be deep and difficult challenges for our organisations to work through. However, having intentional leadership in the mix will prove to be a vital part of the arsenal in getting to the other side.

As project specialists, we deliver fit-for-purpose projects.  Contact us here to find out more about how we work with your teams or call 02 9098 6300.

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Quay Consulting
Quay Consulting is a professional services business specialising in the project landscape, transforming strategy into fit-for-purpose delivery. Meet our team ...