Leaders, Feel that Shift? It is Your Best Self Emerging

Published April 14, 2020

By Fran Johnston

For those of us fortunate enough to have jobs that are able to make the shift to this new WFH (work from home) model, we have in these short weeks, learned a lot about ourselves. “I didn’t really realize how much I enjoyed moving everyday until I am now tethered to my computer on video calls.” We have learned a lot about our kids and family dynamics. “I didn’t think my son could sit still and do his work for such an extended period of time or that my daughter was so funny in so many different ways.”

We are also learning a lot about our team members and their home lives. We are getting to know their senses of humor, their pets, their kids and their home working conditions. We are seeing who keeps it light and loose with humor with their colleagues, and who is having to work in a friend’s basement on a couch.

We are becoming more aware. That is, if we can see. Are you paying attention? Are you noticing? What are you noticing? And when you see, what do you feel?  When you feel, what actions might you take? What actions do you take? An action can be literal, or a shift in perspective, or an adaptation in your plans, expectations and approach to leadership.

“You know, Fran, I just think this is a time for feeling more comfortable with vulnerability,” she said. “I am asking how people are feeling, and they are telling me. I didn’t expect to be doing this a month ago, I thought I would be preparing for the next Board meeting. I am massively exposed – everyone can see my face on these big video boards, I am writing about my life. It is scary as I am a private person, but here we are.”

Only months ago, my leader friend was fascinated with, and consumed by, days full of meetings about tasks, strategic questions, reviewing analytics, reviewing team members’ operational plans and listening to and critiquing their reports, assessing risk and raising capital. Today, she is doing all that but with a more open heart.

These days she is leading in a new way — she is asking her team about how they are doing and she is waiting for them to respond in an authentic way. She is asking them how their teams are doing and what they need from the organization and from her.  She is hosting all organizational calls and she writing blogs about her daily routines with her family and puppy. She does this because her sense of caring for her people has become clear to her and she knows they need to feel seen, heard and cared for by her.

As “Sheila” leads in this new way, she makes it clear that she expects her team members to do so, too. For many of them, this is a less familiar way to lead. Afterall, they were raised in the pre-pandemic era. Their former managers’ stressed performance over people, held a view that “soft” leaders needed to be direct, set high expectations and be largely unyielding as it related to work and family issues. Employees, after all, in this view were replaceable.

Yet Sheila’s new approach is what the current situation calls for, and the managers know it. They are good people, just not used to bringing their relational self quite so fully into their leadership style. With connection and empathy, this senior leadership team is creating the conditions for work where the employees know they are cared about and are getting the tools and support they need in order to actually get work done from home.

Another organization I am aware of got people the tools they needed in record pace but with little mention or acknowledgement of the worries, concerns and challenges individual employees are facing as they live their daily lives WFH. For this organization, it is business as usual only with a shift in location. Employees are feeling lonely and scared and making their way with diminished focus, commitment and connection to the mission or the organization. The lucky ones have direct managers that “get it” and team members they feel connected to. Sadly, the employees speak of this randomness as “the lottery of who you got.”

These are the days to expand your range as a leader. Nothing is “normal.” It isn’t time for business as usual.  Why not put ‘upping your game as a leader’ at the top of your to do list for the next few weeks and months? What if you decided to bring a bit more of your relational, empathetic and helpful self into your leadership routine for the next weeks and months?  You will learn some new habits that will serve you and your organization. We are all going to need to keep learning, adjusting and innovating together for the foreseeable future as we come out of this pandemic and into the next era as a society.

Try these conversations:

Have an hour-long conversation with each of your direct reports and mentees about their long-term future. What are their hopes? We will get through this crisis time. Use the long view to help people imagine a future and to spark hope. Make no promises, of course. You don’t need to. Just partner and listen with confidence that there will be a good future for your person.

By now, you may have become aware that some of your people are more profoundly impacted than others. Perhaps, someone in their family is ill or has passed away, someone’s partner has been laid off, another’s special needs child is struggling with out their usual routine and services. Don’t be afraid to engage. Set a time to listen with an open heart. Avoid problem solving. Be open to what occurs to you. You will be remembered for how you lead in this time.

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