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How will the best organisations and leaders respond to the pandemic?

Phil Hayes
June 11, 2020

Time seems to morph.

It slows down and feels interminable… or welcome.

It speeds up and feels exhilarating... or too much.

On April 3rd - which feels two months and two years ago - the celebrated novelist Arundhati Roy wrote a piece in the Financial Times.

It was powerful then. It is powerful now...

“What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus. Some believe it’s God’s way of bringing us to our senses. Others that it’s a Chinese conspiracy to take over the world.

Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality’, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

Arundhati Roy

The pandemic is not over. No cure discovered.

Many people have experienced huge challenges. They may have lost someone or been anxious for themselves or for loved ones.

There have been - and will continue to be - emotional stressors, financial pressures and health issues.

It’s not over. Yet many have considered or at least started to consider what it would mean ‘to walk lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.’

Many people have enjoyed greater freedom and flexibility – a better work/life balance – which they will want to hold on to.

We have seen examples of how human beings are at their best when in pursuit of a cause they feel passionate about.

We have developed even greater appreciation for those who add practical value to society. For our carers, of course, but also for the ‘easy to miss’ but crucial jobs done by people who show up, day in day out, to staff the supermarkets or collect our rubbish.

We have also noticed the brands who were generous, and saw their role in helping, as opposed to just seeking to profit during this time. And we have noted the brands whose selfishness appals us.

We know from our coaching work that some people have experienced exhilaration and a sense of flow. These are often the people working on important social projects, doing good works, and feeling valued for the work they do.

We still have, lurking, the massive and urgent challenge of climate change, though it feels like the planet has had a few months to breathe.

There are enormous challenges around diversity and equal opportunity that until very recently were receiving little public attention. From our perspective, we see greater diversity as the answer to many organisational problems, not as an issue to be fixed.

It is certain to be a challenging time economically. There will be significant pressures on organisations to ‘turn around’ the financial state of their businesses. Some fear that the hard forces of capitalism will seek to put their foot back on the neck of the wealth generators and make them pay for the crisis.

How will the best organisations and leaders respond to the pandemic?

There are no maps for the future. This is about exploring, not navigating.

But there are some signposts, taken from our research into organisations who have been able to sustain high performance and a healthy culture over a long period. We have identified four such signposts.

Signpost One: Taking a more holistic view of organisational performance – with a greater focus on the organisation’s role in society

We’ve noticed more conversations on the notion of ‘Triple Bottom Line’. This is the idea of measuring organisational performance by employee wellbeing and positive impact on society, as well as financial performance; critically, seeing these as 3 complementary threads rather than as trade-offs. There is increasing evidence that a focus on all three delivers the most sustainable performance over time. Connected with this is the idea of the creation of ‘Social Capital’ inside and outside of organisations. The Radically Traditional research into this alongside Oxford University shows clearly that organisations with clear social purpose attract the best talent, and show greater employee motivation and innovation. Some people go even further than the concept of social capital and speak of Spiritual Capital. Spiritual capital is not connected to religion. It is generated when people are united in a common higher purpose with shared values, ideals, and vision. This notion of Spiritual Capital is gaining ground as representing the main aim of human endeavour in the workplace.

Signpost Two: The need for a greater focus on employee wellbeing

There will be increasing immediate attention on mental health, trauma, and wellbeing issues for employees, with a focus on helping them manage what may be a challenging period of transition. This attention will be vital, even in the context of increasing demands for higher performance. We need to remember that wellbeing and high performance go together. Amy Edmundson, who has led significant research around psychological safety, is often asked ‘can you have too much of a focus on wellbeing and psychological safety?’ Her answer is emphatically no, but she does say that a focus on psychological safety and wellbeing on their own are not enough to ensure performance. We need to combine psychological safety and a concern for wellbeing with high accountability.

Signpost Three: A more empowered and empowering approach to leadership

The ‘leader as the only expert, slash command and control’ model needs to be replaced with ‘achievement-focused leadership’. This begins with galvanising people behind a clear motivating goal, and giving them responsibility and freedom to come up with how these goals can be achieved. The emphasis on devolving responsibility is really important here – empowerment as a concept used to be synonymous with permission giving without enough holding people to account.

Signpost Four: Adaptation and Learning

Organisations are going to have to adapt and innovate rapidly. This will feel risky, though very few organisations have sustained success over long periods without consistently innovating and taking risks. In fact extensive research into those who have sustained excellence for 100 years shows they adapt and innovate. The key insight from this research is that they consistently do two important things. Firstly, they maintain focus on a stable core purpose aimed at shaping society in some way. Secondly, they search for disruptive innovation, constantly evolving how they pursue that purpose.

So, four signposts to orientate in a time-morphed world without maps.

Time to put our best foot forward...

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