As the impact of Covid-19 continues to gather pace, leaders of organisations and businesses across the country and globally are being asked to step up like never before.
What are the keys to effective leadership? Why are some people able to make their communities and teams feel safe, inspire hope and lead people effectively through a crisis when others cannot?
We asked two of our executive mentors to share their lessons as leaders during the Global Financial Crisis and SARS.
Based in the US, Sharon Hatchett, was the Global Leader of IT legal matters for General Motors during the Global Financial Crisis in 2008-9. People were losing their jobs, businesses were failing, and the company’s viability and survival was at stake.
Julian Wee held executive management roles in IBM in Asia Pacific during the SARS epidemic in 2002 and managed teams around the world. He now heads up Seniorgy, a social enterprise focused on the digital wellbeing of the seniors population.
They highlighted three key capabilities.
Maintain a culture that is productive, calm and hopeful
Effective leaders have high self-awareness, are aware of their impact on others, and they know how to manage their emotions and energy, even in times of stress, to maintain a culture that is productive, calm and hopeful.
Wee believes a leader needs to be calm and bring calm, noting that you are dealing with a full range of human emotions and behaviours in a crisis mode.
Hatchett agrees, adding that at times of stress, people who are normally calm, may not be.
“Do as much as you can to not let that impact who you are or how you engage with your team because they’re looking to you to lead them,” Hatchett says.
As Wee puts it: “When things get tough, leaders give hope. That’s what empowers your teams to find and execute solutions.”
Hatchett also reminds leaders to find times to regenerate.
“Clarity of thought is going to be critical, and so even though it’s challenging, you need to find time for yourself to be an effective leader – that is one of the biggest things,” she says.
“Every now and then, friends would insist that we meet for dinner so I could get out of that environment. I found that going for a walk also helped me to decompress.”
While the Covid-19 imperative to stay at home means she can’t meet friends for dinner now, Hatchett plans to continue that practice virtually via Zoom.
Be an effective communicator
Another key capability of an effective leader is that they work well with other people, take an interest in what matters to them and are effective communicators who can motivate and empower others.
“You need to provide clarity and communicate with calm, cut-through messaging, and be transparent, even when not all the facts are known,” says Wee.
“You need to set expectations early and communicate on immediate actions and future plans, otherwise you will be undermined by “What’s next” and “What if” questions.”
Hatchett says that in a time of crisis, there may be a tendency for leaders to withdraw and focus on critical issues impacting the business.
“If you don’t make the effort to communicate effectively, people will panic and operating from a place of fear is not a good place to be, nor does it foster a positive and productive work environment,” says Hatchett.
Hatchett learned the importance of regular, clear communication with her team, after one team member confided that her questions about what they were working on had been misinterpreted as her trying to determine whether they were value adding or whether she was looking to reduce headcount.
“That was not my intent, and once I understood what that disconnect was, I changed my communication style and shared here’s why I need to know that, and here are the priorities I need everyone to focus on, and I made sure we had a regular line of communication,” she says.
Focus on priorities
Finally, effective leaders have a strategic lens on their organisation and industry. It’s imperative to keep your team focused on key priorities, at the same time managing threats and amplifying opportunities.
“Because our work was global in scope, we were on close to 24/7, so it became a matter of prioritising and doing a risk assessment to determine which areas of focus were critical to the viability of the company,” Hatchett says.
Wee uses a sporting analogy.
“If you see yourself in a sporting match, you have an allocated time for an outcome, and you must act and adjust along the way to achieve the win,” he says.
“You need to get on with the job, and make sure you don’t waste time and energy on anything other than what matters.”
From our experience working with leaders of corporations, government agencies and community organisations over the past 20 years, we know that these capabilities are critical for effective leadership.
In today’s pandemic these capabilities may save lives.
by Sophie McCarthy, Executive Director, McCarthy Mentoring
McCarthy Mentoring is a specialist leadership development organisation with an unparalleled network of mentors and coaches from across Australia and around the world, including some of Australia’s most respected business leaders. Details of our programs can be found at www.mccarthymentoring.com