Reshaping leadership styles for growth in a post-pandemic world

10 June 2022 Consulting.us 4 min. read
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Two in three leaders said they need to refine their leadership approach as workforces look to them to lead the way in a post-Covid pandemic world, according to a recent report from PA Consulting. The innovation consultancy surveyed 300+ leaders in Europe and the US to examine the issues leaders are facing today and highlight leadership approaches that drive health and happiness in organizations and society.

The report – titled “A New Way to Lead” – found a relatively even split between leaders identifying as “revivers” and “survivors.” The 56% of revivers said they were focused on continued acceleration, transformation, and investment in growth and innovation. Most UK respondents identified as revivers (73%), followed by US respondents (58%). The top industries for reviver leaders were financial services (73%) and consumer, retail, and manufacturing (63%).

The 44% share of survivors were focused on cost reduction and sustaining pace of change, and were likelier for be from the Nordics (51%) and Netherlands (52%). Survivors tended to come from government and public sector (63%) or defense and security sectors (60%).

“As companies move out of the pandemic, they need to decide if they want to be a survivor or a reviver. Now is the time to reexamine leadership styles and prepare for the road ahead,” Charlene Li, chief research officer at PA Consulting, said.

Leaders focused on survival risk being left behind

The report lists five approaches to transform leadership and be a reviver:

1) Work in the growth zone

Leaders are often drawn to a comfort zone of status quo. The “growth zone” involves a carefully crafted tension that drives progress. PA says this can be achieved in several ways, such as impelling collaboration between departments that wouldn’t usually work together on tasks, such as R&D and finance. This helps break down silos and cultivate new ways of thinking.

Another avenue is creating “impossible deadlines” – like cutting launch timeline from eight months to 10 weeks. This forces improvisation and other uncomfortable positions that could impart lessons to bring the actual completion time to four months, for example.

2) Cultivate kindness

PA says that kindness is the most direct way to make employees take risks and try new things, since they feel safe in not being targeted afterwards. Employees in organizations where leaders were kind were twice as likely to stay for at least another 12 months and twice as likely to report their company was performing well financially.

The report notes that embedding kindness into leadership requires rewarding it – building it into reward schemes, review processes, and ad-hoc feedback meetings.

3) Catalyze internal disruptors

Boards have to think long-term and tend to be a fairly insular community. Adding a shadow board to support bold change and drive disruption is one effective avenue to shake off the cobwebs. Gucci, for example, uses a shadow board that draws young talent from various functions and meets with the board to inform high-level strategy. Since running the model, the fashion brand has grown sales by as much as 136% on the back of greater online and digital activity.

4) Make authenticity everything

Companies are now speaking out on a range of societal issues and putting forward more robust ESG programs – as younger customers and employees increasingly demand such action. However, noble purposes will be tested: will companies be willing to invest in sustainability even though it costs more in the short-term, or to turn down work that doesn’t align with their values?

Companies such as McKinsey & Company will trumpet their various industry leading DEI and sustainability metrics, but will fail on basic corporate social responsibility measures relating to client projects (marketing work for opioid manufacturers; advising the defense establishments of Russia and China; advising Saudi Arabia on social media dissidents). An unwillingness to fundamentally change one’s business model (i.e. advising all clients if the price is right) makes any other CSR efforts ring incredibly hollow. It’s worse to have an inauthentic purpose than no purpose at all.

5) Create and embrace liminal spaces

The shift to remote work has wiped out some of the in-between spaces where innovation flourishes, such as the informal chats before and after meetings or random thoughts during a commute. Leaders need to model how to make the best choices with imperfect information and to “seek out the in-between spaces, moments, and approaches that call for something new,” according to the report.

“The leadership that today and tomorrow demands calls for a subtle shift, and leaders need to nurture optimism, empower teams, build an evolving organization, and seek inspiration in surprising places to carve out a competitive advantage,” Rachael Brassey, global lead for people and change at PA Consulting, said.