What Great Leaders Will Focus on Now

By Regan MacBain Traub, Founder and Managing Principal with HR Practice Leaders Robert Fricchione, M.Ed. and Gavin Pommernelle, MBA

Around the world, organization leaders are reeling from the sense of drinking through multiple firehoses simultaneously while attempting to figure out how to quickly reposition themselves to weather and emerge from the potentially high impact of COVID-19. Many larger retailers shuttered their brick and mortar operations, laid off or furloughed employees and looked to their online business as a lifeline. The hit to businesses in, and suppliers to, the travel and entertainment industry will be difficult to surmount with slower recovery periods. The economic stimulus package will help some. The path forward will be daunting.

The clock is ticking…

Will your organization be ready to successfully surge or re-emerge?

What will great leaders do differently?

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  • Assess the need for, or recent value of, a business continuity (or crisis management) plan. Ask the question, ‘to what degree and how did it prepare us to catapult our business ahead of our competitors?’
  • Review key processes and decisions to determine what worked and what could be improved.
  • In advance, grasp the full impact of this experience on employees and their families… financially, physically, psychologically and socially. Consider appropriate actions to re-establish confidence in the safety of the work environment.  Then, develop a strategy and implement specialized education for leaders and managers for effective employee re-entry and re-engagement practices to shift employees’ view of work from a stress site to an oasis where they can thrive.
  • Develop a communications strategy and plan to assure a regular and ongoing flow of honest and realistic communications.
  • Get back to basics on effective change management across leadership, culture and process.
  • Create a careful, phased-in return to work plan to assure a healthful environment to the greatest degree possible.
  • Build a deep organizational resilience culture that enables effective and positive responses to business challenges and opportunities without overwhelming people and infrastructure.
  • Learn how to value and fully utilize diverse thinking and perspectives to create solutions and opportunities. Create true collaboration through agile principles and methods applicable to every function in the organization.
  • Re-engage their leadership team to consider potential changes to their business or operations strategy to mitigate future disruptions, streamline transitional processes and identify new potential and transformation opportunities due to latent conditions to develop competitive advantage.

Advance Business Continuity Plans…And More

With early indications that peak occurrences are being reached, organizational leaders are recognizing that it’s time to begin to focus on redefining and repositioning their organizations. Business Continuity Plans [“BCP”] are a specialized strategic planning tool devised to assure continued delivery of services and products to communities and clients as well as to mitigate risks to employees, infrastructure, outsourced providers and key suppliers during significant disruption.

Historically, Business Continuity Plans have prescribed actions for disruptions such as natural disasters, sudden changes in economic or market conditions or technological breakdowns. Organizations that have completed this planning and are able to display agility to adapt quickly are more likely to weather impacts of disruptions. Agility, in this context, is the ability of an organization to rapidly assess, decide, adapt and pivot in technical practices, business processes, culture and leadership to market and environmental changes in productive and cost-effective ways.

What is important to note is that business continuity plans have typically focused on a return to ‘business as usual’ rather than including transformation to achieve heightened prosperity, capitalizing on the disruption. Whether you did or did not have a BCP, leaders will be wise to engage in this effort now while clarity of existing challenges, weaknesses, opportunities, barriers, expertise, experience and solutions is ‘fresh.’ When properly facilitated, this work also can prove to be cathartic and re-uniting while beginning transformative exploration for greater organizational resilience and sustainability, now and for the future. So, what exactly is organizational resilience?

Business continuity plans have typically focused on return to ‘business as usual’ rather than including transformation to achieve heightened prosperity… capitalizing on the disruption.

Organizational Resilience

In 2019, Dr. Stephanie Duchek, Department Chair of Business Administration for Brandenburg University of Technology published her research study on organizational resilience. In it, she defined:

  • Flexibility enables an organization to adjust to environmental change.
  • Agility provides the ability to recognize opportunities, change direction and avoid collisions.
  • However, it is Organizational Resilience that includes adaptation and allows organizations to come out stronger than before.”

This echoes 2017 research of David Denyer, Ph.D. at Cranfield University. Denyer is a world leader in research and education on strategy, agility and resilience. He defined organizational resilience as “the ability to anticipate, prepare for, respond to and adapt to incremental change and/or sudden disruptions to survive and prosper.” And, that successful leaders need to balance the tensions or paradoxes of being both defensive and progressive as well as being consistent and flexible. Additionally, he recommended leaders follow a PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) methodology for consistency and a change management based, 4Sight [Foresight, Insight, Oversight, Hindsight] methodology for flexibility, especially in complex matters.2 Organizations identified in Denyer’s study as Best Practice in Organizational Resilience include Infosys, Baiada, NxtraData, SAP and Ciena.

Howard Kerr, CEO of BSI (British Standards Institution) stated that Denyer’s study, which was in partnership with the Economist Intelligence Unit, found that “nine in ten (CEOs) saw resilience as a priority for their business, while eight in ten believed it to be indispensable for long-term growth… a resilient organization is one that not merely survives over the long term but flourishes. We believe that mastering Organisational Resilience offers the best opportunity to pass the test of time, unlocking future prosperity and securing longevity.”

The research to support a business case for the imperative of organizational resilience is compelling. At The Human Resource Consortium, we see organizational resilience as a vital building block to developing organizational sustainability. And, that people and organizations, much like gemstones, originate around the world, manifest in varying degress of resilience, sizes, shapes and colors and are utilized and deployed in variety of ways.

“A resilient organization is one that not merely survives over the long term but flourishes.”

– Howard Kerr, CEO, BSI

Challenges to Organizational Resilience

Leaders’ and managers’ ability to rapidly build individual resilience upon return to ‘brick and mortar’ based reality will be crucial. Why will this be a challenge?

  • Most organizations have deployed change management initiatives for shifts in technology and process, strategy and structure (e.g. M&A integration). In July, 2015, McKinsey reported that 70% (and growing frequency) of change management initiatives fail due to employee resistance and lack of management support.  In the July 25, 2017 issue of Forbes Magazine, Brent Gleeson added insights to the list: “a weak culture that isn’t aligned with the mission, lack of participation and buy-in, under-communicating a powerful vision, over-communicating a poor vision, not enough training or resources, and so on.  But, one very critical roadblock standing in the way of bringing a change vision to fruition is what I call change battle fatigue.”
  • Increased staff pre-occupation with personal demands and challenges (i.e. family health, education, anxiety about potential exposure, care for family members, etc.);
  • Staff desire to return to work as an oasis and social connection, with lack of stress – what may be perceived as existing prior to COVID-19 impact;
  • Pre-COVID-19 levels of worker stress and organizational costs (data below); and
  • Increased demand on managers and leaders who need to focus on managing re-surge or re-emerge planning and execution to recoup against impacts while balancing heightened needs of individuals reporting to them…an acute balancing act for even the most composed and resourceful leaders.

Prior to the Pandemic, it was estimated that U.S. businesses faced $300B in annual costs due to workplace stress.

Wrike’s 2019 U.S. stress study reported 94% of workers reported feeling stressed at work with 29% percent reporting high or unreasonably high levels of stress. Dynamic Signal’s 2019 report found 80% (up 30% from prior year) of US workers attributed stress as a result of ineffective organizational communication, 63% of workers are ready to quit their job due to workplace stress and 16% had quit their jobs due to stress. Gallup’s 2019 report cited that 65% of 30-49 year olds, 64% of 15-29 year olds and 44% of those over 50 are feeling stressed out. And, Korn Ferry’s research found that 35% of workers cited their boss as a major cause of stress. The data that has been compiled is mountainous. It’s also reasonably consistent and disturbing as well as likely to become even more concerning during the next 6-12 months as COVID-19 impacts continue to emerge. Organizations are going to need some special ‘magic’ as they attempt to balance demands for performance and communication with available time, resources and patience.

Re-Entry Employee Engagement: Strategies & Practices

Whether an organization re-surges due to pent up demand or re-emerges gradually, one thing is for sure. Work lives will feel and many will need to be different – either for a while or for the long-term. It may seem like a veritable tug of war. Forward-thinking and mindful leaders are already preparing for Re-Entry Engagement.

Depending upon how communications for furloughs, layoffs or continued, essential staffing were received by employees, either a strong sense of loyalty or a question of trust will reside in minds and hearts. Returned to work communications will likely be strained at all levels and in every pocket of the organization. If conditions allow return to socialization and brick and mortar workplaces in 45-60 days, the time to begin planning and educating leaders, managers and staff is now. It’s certainly not the time to ‘wing it.’ Managers will be tested to their max. New techniques to engage staff will be vital as ‘pulling together’ will rarely be so important.

Establishing a culture of organizational resilience with staff just returning from the COVID isolation and stress to enter into a surge or re-emerge battle will certainly require a significantly higher degree of cultural and interpersonal expertise. It’s an opportunity for leaders and managers to shine. Demonstrating the higher value of their leadership with appreciation for talent will more quickly regain productivity and performance and fend against the inevitable retightening of the labor market.

This work will require finely tuned strategies, approaches and messaging for leadership, teaming and communications. Employees will need the knowledge and tools to adjust to new priorities, practices, and workloads while balancing changes at home. As a consulting firm with 25 years of proven, deep experience in helping guide organizations through many types and degrees of change, we have found those organizations which are resilient and successful in change simultaneously address both the high level issues with the people-focused issues. Our work has concentrated on resolving the people-focused issues with a clear path forward that always integrates with strategic initiatives and leadership direction.

Organizations are going to need some special ‘magic’ as they attempt to balance demands for performance & communication with available time, resources and patience.

Communication Tips for Managers

Resilience at the individual level will be essential. In 2012, Kenneth Ginsburg, M.D., M.S. Ed. defined Personal Resilience as the 7C’s. With more than 3 decades of consulting to organizations on interpersonal dynamics, career planning and coaching of individuals we find Ginsburg’s theories to be common-sense and pertinent for adults in organizations.

7C’s AttributeDefinitionSome Leader/Manager Guidance from The HR Consortium Team
ControlAbility to see choices as well as to make healthy choicesObserving and coaching/mentoring will be effective; avoid directing.
CompetenceHaving a sense of competenceEven-handed and regular acknowledgement of individuals’ competence will build resilience.
CopingAbility to manifest positive coping skillsObserve demonstrations of meaningful connections with others and being creative/innovative. Encourage creativity and team brain-storming. Provide support to those who are under-connected and reclusive.
ConfidenceGained by overcoming obstacles or praise on accomplishment (without attribution to ‘luck’ or ‘chance’)Provide effective guidance to an appropriately skilled individual for an assignment. Look for and acknowledge what someone does ‘right’ before correcting or criticizing. Directing or critical management styles may cause paralysis.
ConnectionFeeling a part of a ‘community’At the organizational, departmental, team and project level, focus on inclusive behaviors. Nurture intra and inter-departmental connections between individuals wherever feasible.
CharacterSense of right, wrong and integrityCommunicate frequently as well as with integrity, fairness and transparency. Listen for, and be open to hearing, concerns of others. Quickly resolve any breaches of integrity. Clarify and widely communicate value propositions for the organization, its customers and staff.
ContributionBelieving that personal efforts have mattered/made a positive impactCelebrate team contributions and wins… they will matter more than ever. Help individuals know that their contribution (large or small) as well as their potential matters. Where individuals successfully contribute, find ways to bring more, similar work to them.

Some additional thoughts for leaders, managers and staff:

  • Remember that feelings of stress and fear due to both organizational and personal realities are at play.
  • Don’t hesitate to nurture individual resilience in each other – up, down and across the organization. Most everyone will need it.
  • Consistently ensure highly effective and timely, 2-way communication.
  • Remind staff or leaders that, and how, their contribution is meaningful – no matter how small.
  • Find special ways to say ‘thank you’ for guidance and feedback as well as contributing to innovation by speaking up with a different perspective or creative, out-of-the-box thinking.
  • Identify ways you can strengthen relationships with suppliers and customers.

Individual and organizational resilience require meaningful levels of emotional intelligence in leaders as well as properly tuned HR and organization development systems that speak to and support the development and management of resilience.

Leadership teams, as well as Human Resource and/or Organization Development functions, should be engaged in this effort now. It will serve as a vital platform upon which to build sustainability going forward in an increasingly complex and unpredictable environment, well worth your organization’s investment.

1 Dr. Stephanie Duchek, Chair, Business Administration for Brandenburg University of Technology in Cottbus, Germany. 2019 Research.
2 David Denyer, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change & Director, Commercial & Development Education, Cranfield University, Cranfield, UK. 2017

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