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The good, the bad and the unknown - How to lead in a pandemic

by Paul Hallam

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Six Degrees Executive recently hosted Didier Elzinga, the Co-founder and CEO of Culture Amp, in a virtual networking webinar about leading through a crisis. Didier is a self-declared contrarian, and his view of the world through a different lens brings a new perspective for CEOs who aren’t only navigating the unknown but leading through it as well.

Starting his career as a software engineer, like many of us Didier has taken a non-linear path to where he has now ended up. Didier draws much of his advice, narrative and words of wisdom from the hard data and soft messages that Culture Amp derives from their work surveying and researching internally in businesses.

The Good

It may be hard to see the good that can come out of a global disaster while we are still living in it, but Didier has been looking at what businesses and employers can draw from the pandemic. After collecting data from a plethora of companies during this time, it has been found that on average 91% of employees think that their places of work are making the right decisions and 93% believe in the future longevity of the company. But what about the other elements that are being impacted?

Working from home

Whilst some employers have embraced their new life indoors, others of course are finding it a challenge. Whether they are thriving or just sailing through, most people have started to embrace the new norm. We are preparing to go back into offices, but not at the same speed, rate or the same way prior to the shutdown.

Feeling connected

Prior to COVID-19, video calls were on the rarer end of the spectrum. Not many places did them and if they did, it was often met with some trepidation. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, video calls are not only regular but have become part of our daily communications; not limited to solely work. What we once stressed about: unprofessional backdrops, casual attire, kids and/or pets barging into frame, has become regular and accepted. It has pulled back the curtain and brought people to a human level, regardless of their position within the company.

The Bad

It’s hard – the balancing act we are playing. Work is still going ahead, with everything else as well – food needs cooking, clothes need washing, houses need cleaning… kids need home schooling. It’s the familiar mixed with the unfamiliar, familiar chores and environments with unfamiliar routines and roles. Didier highlighted an example in the article The Parents Aren’t Alright, highlighting the necessity of the separation of our work lives and our home lives. As the line becomes blurred so does so much else. But it’s not just working from home and new ways of working that is presenting itself in the ‘bad’ column.

The inevitable lay offs

In Australia, we’re lucky. JobKeeper saved many positions, in some cases permanently, but in other less positive cases, JobKeeper is keeping employees on the books until the business can work out just what the murky and blurred future really does look like. Culture Amp has a presence in many countries, including the United States. As the unemployment figure reaches an unprecedented 36 million (as of 27 May, 2020), and as the stimulus packages set to cease, Didier forecasts that the worst is yet to come for the economy.

Culture shift

Culture is hard to maintain through a distance, and one of the struggles, particularly for leaders, is maintaining a positive company culture. A lot of the world right now is living in fear. Not just fear of the virus but fear of the future, as we deal with unpredictable employment situations, office returns, and the state of the economy. Being a leader is about absorbing some of that fear and reshaping your culture to ensure that workers are comfortable, healthy, and able to be as productive as possible. One of the main things about maintaining culture is understanding that everyone will interpret messages differently; you can’t land the same message on everyone and you can’t please everyone, but showing that you are communicating, understanding and that you know it’s a fearful time and are adjusting as such will be the key to maintaining and growing culture.

The Unknown

As we all adjust to the only global pandemic of our life, we are all navigating unknown territory. We are watching people do it well, and we are watching people do it badly. We are watching all of this in real time, and it’s not what we are accustomed to. No one knows the answer.

Being comfortable with all the variables

The future is a question mark right now, and as such, leaders have to be comfortable, be agile and be willing to adapt to all variables. As we prepare to find some normalcy, leaders should be prepared that there could be a second wave resulting in a second lockdown. There could be a vaccine in the future, or we might remain more vulnerable to the virus without one. There could be more lay offs on the horizon, or businesses could see growth. The list is as endless as the outcomes. Leaders should remain calm and flexible to whichever road we go down.

Communicating the unknown

Didier spoke of one of the ways to communicate during this period of such unfamiliar territory, and referenced RWWFT: Results, Wins, Worries, Focus and Things (that inspire). It’s about making sure that all of the boxes are ticked, giving an open and transparent view into the company, and the person doing the communicating.

There is no right and wrong in leadership. Everyone leads differently. But in a time shrouded in such uncertainty, the difference between good leaders versus great leaders is being able to shift your company values and cultures to suit the new normal.

Talk to the Six Degrees’ Executive Search team for the latest on organizational leadership.