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Leadership after corona – a personal view

16-04-2020Culture

For years we’ve talked about disruption and how it will come for one sector at a time. The underlying message was always that we have it under control and there were ways to prepare for the change – or even steer it.

And then came COVID-19.

Gian Casanova

Managing Director, Berlin

Now the disruption is sudden, all-encompassing and not something to control. Once again, the most adaptable survive. Disruption hits us like a ton of bricks in countless areas of human endeavor.

Leadership is definitely one.

Leaders lose control

The impact on our lives as leaders takes the form of a loss of control – from two primary directions: business and people.

On the business side, all bets are off. We will need to rethink everything: the topics we planned to discuss, the forecasts we relied on to make future plans, and the investments we were going to make. We have a long history of working with clients to help them thrive when the earth moves under their feet. This current change is bigger than anything we’ve faced down before, and it probably has a bigger impact on us as a company, too, but there are similarities. Our experience will help us become better partners for our clients.

On the people side, changes that were already in the air are all of a sudden accelerating exponentially as a result of the pandemic.

For decades companies like ours have sung the praises of autonomy in the workplace. We’ve advocated gradually changing the culture to accommodate more independent decision-making by employees. Turns out there was nothing gradual about it.

The abrupt move to remote work has left many leaders in a very uncomfortable position and far from familiar terrain. We’ve had to give up control. It’s difficult – understandably so – but it is the new normal. You just have to trust people. The best way to build trust is through caring and transparency. As it happens, I’ve now mentioned three of our four core values.

For me personally, the difference between leading Futurice’s Berlin office under normal circumstances and as a completely remote work -based operation is probably less radical than for many other companies, but the change has given me food for thought and a few new insights into my role and the future of leadership in companies.

Taking the remote leap

It was after reading an article by a data scientist, shared by a colleague, that I realised the depth of the impact this virus will have on our lives and business. Taking the decision to close our office and go remote was, in concrete terms, a small step. The technical prerequisites for working from home have existed for us for a long time. Regardless, doing it such a scale is completely new territory – for us and countless others – so I was surprised by how little impact it has had on productivity.

Mentally it was a bigger step, despite the fact that we are an autonomous organisation. I’ve definitely learned some valuable lessons during this transition to remote work.

Transparency and communication have become more important and, as a result, I do actually seem to spend a bit more time in meetings now. Sharing personal feelings and reflections, as a leader, and staying in close contact with my team is essential. For example, I actively engage in even more conversations and share my personal quarantine diary. Many of the same reflections apply to client communications, too. Empathy and honesty are vital. We have to remember we are all in this together, so let's listen and be strong advisors for each other. In difficult times, we need humor and optimism as well. We encourage our team to share home office pictures, photos of pets, meet for virtual coffee dates, etc.

Some of the impacts this crisis and working remotely have had I’m quite excited about. It has made the senior management team much closer and we are more focused on concrete and pragmatic action. Our wider organisation is starting to change in some ways, with new and closer connections between individuals at different sites and between functions. This disruption is making the flow of information richer.

There are challenges, too. For some of us, working from home means isolation from family and friends. For others, it means taking care of small children and trying to work at the same time. Everyone has their own kinds of issues. We support our people by offering our employees remote mental health services using a service called Auntie.

Rethinking my role and playing to my strengths

The pandemic has definitely helped me rethink my role in some ways. It has also helped me get a sharper picture of what my strengths as a leader are in a world after corona. In my opinion, the key characteristics that a successful leader in the post-corona world needs are empathy and flexibility. You need to keep your eyes and ears open. You need to make and reinforce connections. You need to communicate about your thoughts and how you see the future.

Above all, you need to live what you preach and lead by example. Now and in the future.

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