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THE MAGAZINE OF FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY'S COLLEGE OF BUSINESS
 
The New Face of Leadership: Lessons from COVID-19

The New Face of Leadership: Lessons from COVID-19

By Cynthia Corzo

Doing business in the "next new normal" is not business as usual anymore.

The challenges faced by employees, managers and CEOs during the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say, call for a new style of leadership and redefined priorities. Efforts to make businesses adaptable and resilient, progressing slowly before the pandemic, accelerated, forcing companies to pivot at speeds never anticipated.

"Teams and organizations that can embrace the noise and see through the fog of this upheaval can come out ahead on the other side," said Nathan Hiller, Ingersoll-Rand Professor and associate professor of global leadership and management at FIU Business. "But to see opportunities, you can't be paralyzed."

Human resource veteran Jose Tomas (MSHRM '03, BBA '92), explained that change management is happening. Business leaders have adapted to their teams working remotely and are redirecting in-person communications to email, Zoom or other similar platforms.

"It hasn't been immediate, and was tough for many in the beginning, but people have realized that you can have and maintain relationships whether you're using a phone, a computer or an app," said Tomas, managing partner of Miami-based BrandSparc, an internal communications and employment branding firm.

Amid the massive changes in the workplace, employees' physical and mental well-being were deeply impacted. Hiller describes it as similar to being forced to run a marathon that someone didn't sign up for, without clear mile markers, and a finish line that keeps moving.

One of the new tasks for leaders at all levels is connecting with team members as individuals, providing empathy and motivation.

"BEFORE, SOME WERE MICROMANAGING TASKS, AND NOW THEY'RE MANAGING DELIVERABLES WITH NEW PATTERNS OF BEHAVIOR."

Jose Tomas

"We can't expect people to be able to think well and execute complex work tasks if they're in a heightened state of anxiety about their family's safety and if they are worried about their company going bankrupt or have watched their family members lose their jobs," said Hiller, who is also the executive director of FIU's Center for Leadership. "A focus on resilience and mindfulness is key."

Experts recommend several strategies for leaders as they move through the COVID and post-COVID environment:

Leverage the Strength of "Weak" Workplace Ties

Recultivate relationships with people who you used to run into at work and chat with. Known as "weak" (as opposed to strong) ties – this wider circle of connections is a critical and often-forgotten component of career success, innovation and leadership.

"If you're Zooming with the same six people, you're missing out on some of the big picture in your organization and industry," said Hiller.

He recommends reaching out to a wider circle of acquaintances and people in other organizations and departments, even if it's remotely. "Check in with them and say hello."

Rethink Everything

Re-create a sense of urgency to adapt, to continue to make changes. "In some ways we got a lot smarter … people cut out a lot of busy work that wasn't strategically vital," Hiller added.

One area where corporate leaders have slowly made changes – and must continue to evolve – is in how they manage employees and evaluate their performance, Tomas said.

"Before, some were micromanaging tasks, and now they're managing deliverables with new patterns of behavior," he added. "Instead of asking, 'what tasks did you do today,' now it's 'I need these by the end of the week.'"

Communicating a strategic vision and documenting team results are even more important today.

"More than ever, leaders need to advocate for their teams and units to make sure everyone is aware of the unique value that your unit or team brings to the organization," said Hiller. "They need to find ways to keep their coordination among their team high." It may also help to restructure the team by switching up roles and changing processes, he added.

Harness Advantages of Remote Work

Tomas, who earlier in his career led human resource operations at General Motors, Anthem and Burger King, describes working remotely as a benefit for himself and for BrandSparc. It allows him new opportunities: the ability to speak with a larger number of leaders or clients in a shorter period of time, reduced overhead from travel costs and office space, flexibility to schedule meetings across time zones at hours that are convenient for all participants, and more opportunities for negotiation.

For the foreseeable future and post-COVID, Tomas anticipates businesses will offer more commuting arrangements, including a hybrid schedule of in-office and in-home workplaces, making jobs more competitive. There's also greater acceptance of hiring talent anywhere in the U.S. as well as internationally, with a corresponding need for leaders to manage effectively across time zones and cultures.

Understand Visibility

When it's safe for employees now working remotely to go back to the office, "face time" will likely return as an important ingredient of career and organizational success, Hiller said. There are clear advantages to remote work that showed up quickly and received a lot of attention. Some of the downsides might take longer to show up.

At the beginning of the pandemic, "everyone was trying to prove they were being productive, and people were putting in crazy hours because it was a crisis," Hiller said. "But individuals and organizations can't sustain a frenetic pace forever. I'd expect to see at least some of those productivity gains to start levelling off or reversing."

"INDIVIDUALS AND ORGANIZATIONS CAN'T SUSTAIN A FRENETIC PACE FOREVER. I'D EXPECT TO SEE AT LEAST SOME OF THOSE PRODUCTIVITY GAINS TO START LEVELLING OFF OR REVERSING."

Nathan Hiller

As for when and why an office presence is critical, Hiller points to functions that rely heavily on interpersonal relationships, collaboration and teamwork that benefit from in-person interactions. He adds that there is "simultaneously both an upside and a downside" to mass virtual work in terms of individual, team and organizational performance.

"We may choose not see the negative effects now, but they will become more salient to organizations in the next six months," said Hiller. "I'm just now starting to see that CEOs and senior executives are recognizing the downside to their organization."

These long-term relationship-building issues will come to play as return-to-office options grow.

"How do you build culture, how do you onboard?" Hiller said. "Or how do you have serendipitous conversations with someone, say, from another department who provides you valuable information or ideas that you didn't even know to ask about? You don't have these nearly as much via email or Zoom because these are planned conversations."

Leadership Strategies

Select Urgency
Re-create a sense of urgency to adapt, to continue to make changes. In some ways we got a lot smarter … people cut out a lot of stupid stuff that didn't need to get done. But we're at a phase now where leaders need to be selective in focusing on one or two change efforts at a time.

Empathize and Motivate
Connect with team members as individuals – employees are unable to think well and execute complex work tasks in a heightened state of anxiety. And many are in a heightened state of anxiety – even if you think they're doing okay. A focus on resilience and mindfulness is key. People need connection and some stability. Lead accordingly.

Monitor Emergent Pitfalls of Virtual Work
Keep an eye out for subtle downsides of virtual work that may start to show up in the coming months. Career advancement, creativity and innovation on complex projects, and building culture will suffer in many organizations that over-embrace virtual work as a panacea.