Overloaded with grossed up statistics, theories, fake messages, anecdotes that mostly support pessimism and general worries, leaders all over have taken with gusto, to the concept of a ‘new normal’. And yet, there is no aligned view of what this new normal is supposed to be. The underlying implication however is that ‘everything is going to be different’.
Whatever this ‘new normal’ is going to be, people wonder if the leadership principles followed so far are still relevant?
When you use light rays for brightening up a room or get these into a focused beam to cut through a metal, it is the application that has changed. Physics associated with light has not changed.
Similarly, while the essence of leadership remains timeless, the context where its principles will be applied is changing rapidly and would call for adapting these to the new world. Therefore, everything is about applying the essence inside a context. As the context changes, the application of the principles(of leadership) has to evolve to suit the new context.
How customers expect their needs fulfilled, employees’ expectation of job security, evolving new norms of productivity and employee trust and goal clarity will all provide some of the newer contexts for leadership .
I can think of four critical areas that leaders may have to grapple with: customer needs, job security & assurance, productivity and trust & goal clarity.
While the core needs will remain the same, change will come in the way these are fulfilled, and the extra costs involved.
Escalating Costs of fulfillment – be it how you seat people in a restaurant or in a flight, or how public spaces need to be redesigned – will require revisiting. New action plans need to be thought through carefully, costs clearly reckoned and business models revisited to keep the business viable and profitable.
Job Security given more by Customers, less by Companies
The attractiveness of private sector jobs was unquestionable until corporations started shedding jobs and issuing pink slips every now and then. In Covid times, while some, like the yoga teachers for example, have managed to somewhat tweak their offerings and gone online, the other new economy gig job-holders, like the Uber drivers, have had it rough. The point is there is going to be a louder voice from the employees about the need for job security and the inability or reluctance from the employers to offer it.
Leaders need to handle these pronounced contradictions and at the same time keep the workforce motivated. I would say that candour, transparency and empathy with employee stakeholders, followed by authentic actions, are needed from leaders to deal with this dichotomy.
The withdrawal of salary cuts by IndiGo’s Ronojoy Dutta or even better, increase in salaries and perks of its employees by Asian Paints’ Amit Syngle are bright lights in today’s tough world of employment. But unfortunately, they are – at least for now – more like exceptions than the rule. But they represent manifestation of the basic tenet ‘a well-looked after workforce in a crisis will form a formidable strength going forward’.
Not many organisations have the underlying rock-solid foundation of financial muscle and customer base to apply the same principle of people management. However, one can still implement in one’s own context – within means and consistent with the culture of the organisation. In the long-run and on a steady-state, the means is dictated by customers – how permanently have they gone away? How many of them are likely to come back, when? And when they come back, how much will they buy and pay? Answers to these questions will help answer questions on what you can assure your employees about the ‘now’ and the ‘future’.
Leaders will need to carefully create new norms in a changing world where the past norms of productivity will no longer hold true. Leaders should refrain from falling into an easy trap of going by thumb rules; instead construct their own new norms of productivity – be it in office space utilisation and work from home context or physical travel versus online meetings, etc. When it comes to labour intensive manufacturing operations, the challenges will be even more.
While the basic principles of establishing productivity norms and monitoring their improvement remains an ever-normal, the context demands that what is specifically applicable to one’s organisation needs to be constructed with the given new realities and demands. You can’t wish them away.
Trust and Goal Clarity
There has been, hopefully, an irreversible phenomenon on Work from Home. Leaders have found comfort in letting people work remotely without worrying if they are working or having fun. The paradigm where the physical hours spent in office were considered a significant measure of an employee’s output has been broken, more or less!
But the more valuable by-product is a sharper visibility of the outcomes. This creates pressure on the leaders to more precisely define expectations and remove ambiguity. Hopefully, this will lead to better organisational productivity and progress, since what gets measured well, gets managed well.
While goal-setting has been an ever-normal principle, the new context demands some changes. The fuzziness associated with some parts of goal setting needs to be replaced with a lot more sharper goals for shorter periods of time. Leaders will end up revisiting some of the job roles that exist now and perhaps de-aggregate them to allow the new context of working from home and different methods of team collaboration.
Mark Oliver of Team Two consulting recommends that organisations should modify hierarchy and move to small and manageable cross-functional teams with clear accountability and a line of reporting. This could be one valuable approach.
I once heard Vishwanathan Anand, the World Chess Champion, say “intuition comes from the reservoir of experiences that you forgot you have had!”. As long as leaders don’t become part of the problems but stay firm on the basic tenets of leadership that they already know, handling businesses during the pandemic, though tougher, could be another day at office!
Certainly interesting times to be a leader!
About the Author
Raghavan G is a seasoned professional with over 30 years of extensive experience in sales, marketing, product management, business development and general management. He has held the positions of Managing Director and Chief Executive at several globally reputed organisations such as Carrier, Ingram Micro and NIIT. He is currently the CEO of Bhartiya Urban. He has also spent time as a member of both South Africa’s E-skills Council and as Consultant to the Government of Wuxi New District, China. He holds an MBA from IIM-Ahmedabad and a BSc in Agriculture from Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore.
(Edited by Anu Choudary)
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