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Management Perspectives

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What comes next?

by Atholl Duncan
Indian Management July 2021

It has been the toughest of times leading through a pandemic. But what can we learn from what we have all been through? How will it change us as leaders? And how should we lead out of lockdown? These are just some of the questions that we believe leaders should be pausing to ask themselves.

It has been the toughest of times — leading through a pandemic. But what can we learn from what we have all been through? How will it change us as leaders? And how should we lead out of lockdown?

These are just some of the questions that we believe leaders should be pausing to ask themselves. In March 2020, as the first of lockdowns hit India, the leadership and technology business Black Isle Group, embarked on a project to try and capture the remarkable and unprecedented moments as COVID stopped the world.

We followed 28 global business leaders as they were locked down and as they struggled to help their people and their businesses survive. The result is a book Leaders in Lockdown, which we hope is a clarion call to re-set the world of business and re-set society.

The project has now morphed into a series of intense and moving workshops which aim to help leadership teams take a breath and reflect and ultimately emerge with a clearer idea of how they will do things in a different way in the future. The project has identified seven themes from the insights of the leaders who we worked with.

1. A new age of purpose: The project evidenced that leaders who put purpose at the heart of their business during the pandemic fared best. In the future, purpose will no longer be just words to be emblazoned on a website. It will be an essential for engaging employees, customers, and investors. As Leena Nair, Chief HR Officer, Unilever put it, “Companies with purpose last; brands with purpose grow; and people with purpose thrive.”

2. The new world of work: The pandemic highlighted that the world of work was not fit for the future. We moved many millions of people from the office to the home in what seemed to be an instant. Now the challenge is to reinvent so much of what we do in the workplace through innovation and creativity and through listening to our people.

3. Tackling inequality: The virus widened inequality in many ways. The role of all leaders in business must be to act decisively to counter worsening equality, diversity, and inclusion in society and in business.

4. Global co-operation: The virus exposed the selfishness of countries and our political leaders far more than it showed our ability to be compassionate internationalists. The role of business leaders in co-operating across borders to solve the existential problems facing society is potentially game changing in life after COVID.

5. Resilience: The virus reminded us of the importance of resilience, in all its guises. From personal resilience to see us through to operational resilience to the power and strength of our balance sheets. As in every crisis, cash was king.

6. Re-setting the supply chain: The crisis exposed that 40 years of supply chain decisions based on cost and productivity mattered little in a pandemic. Supply chains will now be re-drawn. Some manufacturing may move back from Asia to the US and Europe over time. Businesses will want to derisk the possibility of grinding to a shuddering halt the next time a virus hits the world.

7. Maximising potential: We need to radically re-think how we maximise the potential of our leaders and our people in the new world of work. We must factor in a greater focus on mental and physical welfare; reconsider what kind of leadership is most effective; and invent new strategies for maximising the performance of a hybrid and distributed workforce. Upskilling the world’s line managers is also a big task to tackle.

There is so much change for leaders to tackle right now and the pace of that change will never get slower.

Two inspiring Indian women contributed to the heart and a soul of the ‘Leaders in Lockdown’ project – Leena Nair at Unilever, the Global Indian of the Year in 2020 and Nupur Singh Mallick, Group Chief Human Resources Officer at Tata. Their thoughts are a guiding light as we [hopefully] head out of the crisis.

While contemplating the scale of change that we are facing now, Nupur told us, “You want to come out of this much stronger. We will not go back to where we were. While ways of working and business models will see a paradigm shift, our values and culture at the Tata Group are what bind us all together. The only thing that shouldn’t change is who we are.”

Nupur advocates basic principles for leading out of lockdown, “The conversation has to be honest but always with a sense of hope, because when you lose hope it is over. When we talk about the future, we have to give hope.”

Purpose sat at the heart of the efforts to get through the pandemic at both Tata and Unilever.

Leena Nair explained, “Purpose has truly been elevated because when you are anxious, when you are worried, when you are not sure, the only thing that keeps you going is this ‘higher’ purpose of doing meaningful work in the world. This time has elevated purpose like no other.”

“My purpose is to ignite the human spark to build a better business and a better world. It is a humanitarian crisis. It is about the human spirit. It is about valuing human beings. It is about valuing human life,” she added.

Leena also believes that it was a new kind of leader who was most effective in the crisis and a new kind of leader who will be predominant in the future. She has a blueprint for what that kind of leader looks like.

“Being kind. Being compassionate. Being empathetic. Being inclusive,” she says. “No longer is the leader the one who has all the answers. The first thing they do is listen and acknowledge the pain and the answers will follow. Empathise; walk in their shoes.

Lead with no hierarchies. Be willing to be humble and curious. These are the leaders who are succeeding in today’s time. We have undervalued these things in the past because we liked leaders chasing for growth and talking up profit and adopting the ‘Superman style’ of leadership.”

In our workshops at Black Isle Group, we ask leaders what they want to hold on to from the crisis and what they want to leave behind.

Most want to keep the agility and pace which they showed at peak pandemic. They want to maintain the better working together and the focus. They want to give up being busy fools doing unproductive work which does not impact the true outcomes they are trying to achieve.

They are passionate about holding onto the care and compassion they saw in the white heat of COVID. They would dearly love to keep the trust that they felt between themselves and their colleagues in this most stressful time in their careers.

The challenge now for all leaders is to not go back but to move forward to a better world of business. As one of the ‘Leaders in Lockdown’ put it, “Why can’t we build a world fit for our children to live and work in, rather than the one we were all destroying before we had ever heard of COVID?”

Atholl Duncan is Chair of Leadership Development and Technology Business, Black Isle Group. He is also author, Leaders in Lockdown.

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