Pandemic Lessons for Business Leaders

Piah Lang Yeo is a Gallup certified coach at Strengths Insights. She is a senior Finance Leader who has used CliftonStrengths® to navigate her career. With a portfolio comprising global and regional roles, she has a strong appreciation of what constitutes success in a corporate world and connects well when there is cultural diversity. As a practitioner of CliftonStrengths® program, Piah Lang helps individuals apply their strengths successfully in a practical way. We speak with her about the most important takeaways from the pandemic below.

What do you think are the key lessons business leaders have learnt over the past 15 months?

Firstly, business leaders would have quickly learnt the importance of liquidity in a crisis. Without cash, everything in a business grinds to a halt.

Secondly, given the speed of the pandemic, many global/regional headquarters were overwhelmed or had little time to react. Offices closer to markets were empowered to react quickly to local situations. This decentralised decision-making model is here to stay as we can anticipate more disruptions in a post-COVID world – it is important for an organisation to continue to stay localised, nimble and swift in response.

Thirdly, there have been major paradigm shifts and the pre-COVID world is not coming back. Business leaders realise they need to accelerate the pace of integrating technology into every aspect of the organisation e.g. remote working, online payments, real-time inventory levels, etc. Technology has flattened the playing field and the commerce world is becoming borderless.

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly redefined the way business leaders interact with their teams. How can leaders re-approach their interactions to increase employee engagement?

It is important for leaders to clearly set out the organisation’s overall direction and key performance indicators for each business unit, especially post-pandemic when there can be changes in direction for the organisation. With fewer face-to-face opportunities, there is a greater need for leaders to regularly and consistently communicate progress via newsletters, town halls or group check-in sessions. I would recommend senior leaders to have regular virtual chat sessions with varying small groups of employees from any section of the organisation. This ensures senior leaders are accessible and enables them to feel the pulse of the organisation personally.

Employees will stay engaged if they are able to provide feedback for the organisation to stay competitive or how to improve. However, it is critical for leaders to follow through on actions and feedback to stay credible. Feedback from the coalface will be more valuable than before as we are in unprecedented times and the local impacts from the pandemic are different.

Managers play an important role in driving employee engagement and as such, leaders must continually invest in the development of managers for them to be successful. Managers need to have empathy in order to appreciate their employees’ needs as these have changed during the pandemic. For instance, working with their partner at home, homeschooling children, job security, organisation stability and financial well-being are some of the key concerns for employees and these need to be consistently addressed and supported where possible.

Ironically, studies show that leaders who try to be all-rounders and focus on improving personal weaknesses, do not always turn out to be effective leaders. Can you imagine the world if Steve Jobs chose to focus on his improvement areas instead of his key creativity talent?

As the world emerges from the pandemic, what would you advise business leaders to do now?

Following a year of firefighting, it is time to revisit five-year business plans to confirm if long term objectives and business assumptions are still valid post-pandemic. As the world is no longer going back to pre-COVID days, leaders have to be brave enough to accept that there are no sacred cows in the organisation. Where necessary, they have to restructure and adapt to the new world e.g., right-sizing organisation structures, streamlining the supply chain, optimising office space, reviewing business continuity plans etc. Organisations need a sense of urgency to complete this review or face having the company overtaken by the competition.

A positive outcome from a crisis is that it tests and showcases good talent within the organisation i.e. those who stepped up to navigate the challenges. Business leaders should ensure these talents are retained and have clear development plans for the future. The sustainable advantage of a company is its people, and it is easier and more cost-effective to groom internal talent.

Finally, leaders should acknowledge employees for managing the organisation through an extraordinary period of disruption. They should build camaraderie within the ranks by sharing success stories, recognising employees who went the extra mile, recognising individuals through awards, etc. The next stage is to focus on the future and share updated business plans. Build hope, confidence and resilience within employees, as these are the fabric for thriving teams.

Why is coaching so important, even for individuals and leaders who think they don’t need it?

Organisations may think their technology, innovative product designs or branding give them a competitive edge. However, it is the employees who drive these “competitive edges” and people’s talents are an organisation’s sustainable advantage. These talents should be nurtured, especially within the people leaders in the company.

Leaders need to understand their natural talents so they can operate in their ‘strength’ zone and be good at what they do. Ironically, studies show that leaders who try to be all-rounders and focus on improving personal weaknesses, do not always turn out to be effective leaders. Can you imagine the world if Steve Jobs chose to focus on his improvement areas instead of his key creativity talent?

On the other hand, teams must be well rounded to be successful. Studies show that diverse, strong and cohesive teams have a combination of strengths in strategic thinking, executing, influencing and relationship building. In a pandemic, well-rounded teams will navigate well through any crisis with no predictability.

Executive coaching in strengths helps individuals (especially people managers) and teams to accomplish goals by doing what they naturally do best. As company resources are in short supply, managers must effectively utilise team members’ strengths, otherwise, the team’s performance will be mediocre. There are benefits for team coaching sessions as the team members will better understand how each individual works. For instance, a team manager’s talent can be making good decisions, but he or she may need a longer time to deliberate. Therefore, the team can consider sending pre-reads in advance of meetings to expedite the decision-making process. Team coaching enables teams to work cohesively together.

 

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