We’re still traversing strange times as we move further into the new year. Companies and employees alike hoped for a return to normalcy in 2021 and while vaccine rollouts bring hope that change may be on the horizon, many organizations are still trying to navigate doing business in a remote world. As we settle into this in-between stage of not being able to fully return to the office but being more familiar with the realities of the pandemic, it raises the question of what leadership really means right now. Are managers and leaders rising to the challenge of meeting their team’s needs from a distance? Let’s explore what it takes to remain an effective leader in an uncertain world.
Amazon’s lesson on the importance of self-awareness
If you’re paying attention to the news this week it’s impossible to miss the big shake-up we’ve just seen at Amazon. Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, has stepped down from his role as CEO to become executive chairman with Andy Jassy taking over. There’s been a lot of talk about why he’d make this move when he’s spent his life growing the company he started in a garage. But his decision is a leadership lesson to us all. Bezos is at a point where he has other passions and projects on the go and has the self-awareness to see that his original company is going to be fine without him. As he puts it, “Right now I see Amazon at its most inventive ever, making it an optimal time for this transition.” And he’s exactly right.
Good leaders have a vision that can motivate others to follow them. Great leaders can see the bigger picture happening around them and take steps to position their companies and teams accordingly. Bezos has displayed a master class of self-awareness in admitting he is no longer the right person to lead Amazon, even if he’s the right person to lead other initiatives. In a world in turmoil, self-awareness has become a cornerstone of exceptional leadership. We might not all be Bezos or Amazon, but we can definitely take this lesson to heart about what it means to be a leader in an uncertain year.
What skills do leaders need this year?
Along with self-awareness, what skills do leaders need to develop this year? In almost every industry we’re hearing tales of employees burning out from the long stretch of working from home. Employee engagement is down across the board and, perhaps surprisingly in an uncertain economy, turnover is on the rise as employees try to make career decisions to improve their physical and mental health. Any one of those issues would be a challenge for the average leader to tackle but right now, leaders have to manage multiple problems at once. So what are some key skills that current and future leaders need to take into account this year?
Agility: Let’s face it, this is not the year to work on auto-pilot. Leaders need to be able to break away from the mindset of “but we’ve always done it this way” in order to find new strategies to adapt to our strange world. Agile leaders have the flexibility and willingness to try new ways of working and producing. Sometimes those attempts might not work the way you envisioned and that’s ok. There’s no guidebook on how to respond to a pandemic. Being open to different ways of working in order to find what best fits your team is a key skill to embrace.
Empathy: Anyone in a leadership or management position right now should be prioritizing their empathy skills. Times are tough and employees are struggling. We’re all feeling the drain from months of both remote work and the constant bombardment of negative news in our world. People are tired and pandemic fatigue is setting in. Leaders need to be aware of that reality and adjust how they manage and communicate with their teams. Reaching out to have real conversations about how your employees are doing can make all the difference in keeping motivation high.
Communication: It’s a common trope that there’s no such thing as too much communication but it’s especially true this year. The more leaders connect with their team and provide them with transparency about what is happening within the company the better. People are scattered in different homes and possibly isolated alone. Open communication can be their window into the direction the company is moving and what is going on with their teams. When in doubt, try to work on those communication skills and err on the side of over-communicating, especially if you’re kicking off new projects or plans at the start of the year.
Resiliency: Leaders are people too. They’re probably feeling the same strain their teams are, if not more. A resilient leader, however, knows how to cope with the unknown both mentally and emotionally without it tearing them down. It’s important for leaders to manage their own stress so that they can be a role model for their team to help others strengthen their own resilience so that team members can move forward as a connected unit.
Problem-solving: While leaders always need to be able to solve problems, this year they might need to tackle issues that could be related to company health, market changes, employee burnout, mental health fluctuations, or even physical health challenges as Covid continues to spread. A good leader is going to need to think quickly and find alternative ways to solve what used to be more commonplace challenges. Again tying back to the idea of becoming more agile, leaders need to think beyond the strategies they’re used to leveraging and find new ways to approach problem-solving and decision-making.
What can leaders do to help their teams?
It’s easy to talk about what leaders need in order to succeed in a remote world, but what are some tactics they can try to actually work on improving their abilities and helping their teams?
Embrace learning: One positive to come out of the last 12 months is a renewed focus on learning and development. Working in a remote world requires different skill sets than working in the office and helping your team learn those abilities together can kick start engagement and motivation. Because of the nature of remote work, this is a good time to refocus on team effectiveness and connection. If you’re looking for something to do with your team, consider investing in workshops or activities that will support personal growth, interpersonal understanding, and team collaboration.
Try assessments: Help leaders improve their skills with the use of assessments. As we saw with the Bezos story, the more self-awareness a leader has, the better they’ll be in their role. Self-development assessments are a remote-friendly way to encourage leaders to work on their own abilities and grow even if they have to do so on their own schedule at a distance. Leadership 360 assessments can also come in handy to assess how well a leader is doing in their current role and what they might be able to improve on to support their teams in a more effective way.
Address anxiety: Don’t ignore the elephant in the room. Nearly everyone is feeling an increase in anxiety this year and that can quickly spiral into larger mental or physical health issues. Anxiety often goes hand in hand with depression so take the time to talk to your team about coping strategies for dealing with burnout, isolation, and stress. It’s always better to create a team culture where talking about potential problems and stressors is accepted so employees know there is support when they need it. If your company has any benefit system that includes online or phone counseling, make sure your employees know what’s being offered and how to access it.
Ask for feedback: When in doubt, ask. It can be hard to keep your finger on the pulse of your team when you don’t get to interact with them face-to-face or possibly even on a daily basis. If you’re wondering how your team is doing, asking for feedback is always a great idea. For teams that have a solid foundation of psychological safety and are willing to openly discuss challenges, set some time aside each week or month to check in. If your team isn’t comfortable with that sort of approach, anonymous employee surveys are an easy method of getting at the heart of what’s really happening. Whip up an online survey to use from a free source like Survey Monkey. Don’t forget to make time to debrief the results as a group so employees can have some insight into how their colleagues are feeling too.
Have a vision: As we learned from Bezos, leaders need a clear understanding of where they’re headed so they can inspire their team to follow. That can be a tall order after a year that threw a new global challenge at us on what seemed like a monthly basis. But having some idea of the bigger picture, whether that’s expectations for a team or a change in direction for a company, can help keep everyone on track. If there are clear goals to aim for, it’s easier for employees to manage their own workloads and emotions. For larger-scale projects, try breaking the work down into smaller, more achievable milestones to keep employees from getting overwhelmed.
Leading in a pandemic is a marathon, not a sprint
Effective leadership has never been more important than it is right now. Motivating employees to keep pressing on when they are tired is a problem companies across the globe are facing, but successful leaders are rising to the challenge and finding ways to make life better for the people following them. Prioritize improving leadership skills that will have the biggest impact on your team members from being more empathetic and communicative to find new ways and solutions to solve problems as they arise. Rallying people around a common goal is a good way of bringing your team together to refocus on teamwork and collaboration. And make sure you’re consistently making time to check-in and address real-world concerns so your team members feel supported and less alone. Leveraging assessments can help improve team effectiveness and regular feedback can provide a baseline for how your employees are faring.
True leadership isn’t something that happens by accident but something that can be learned and developed. While there are many types of leaders out there, remember that self-awareness should be a foundation piece of any leadership role. Like Jeff Bezos, we all need to think about what it means to be a better leader and take steps to make that a reality.