Does a new way of working require a new form of leadership? Technology leaders Ian Cohen, CIO, ICS; Roberto Maranca, Data Excellence VP, Schneider Electric; Sarah Flannigan, Chair, Riverford Organic; Dayne Turbitt, SVP & General Manager UK, Dell Technologies; and Rod Kilgour, CIO, Tiger of Sweden, came together at The Studio @ Home to reflect on their own styles of leadership over the course of 2020 and what they feel matters most for their teams and businesses in the future.
“Last year was possibly the busiest of my life,” reported Sarah Flannigan, “as every business I help run needed to work hard, I had children to homeschool and I myself had the virus early on in the year. I sometimes like to think of myself as a superwoman but this was really tough,” she added.
Leadership has historically followed the trajectory of growth, then digitization, then transformation. At each stage executives had to unlearn a part of their remit and quickly adapt to the business’ changing needs, whether that be the shift to online, competition from the startup ecosystem or intra-company collaboration. The year of 2020 has been unprecedented for one more reason though: it is the first time teams have had to critically regard one another, proactively care for one another, en masse.
Flannigan continued: “I want to add though that 2020 was also one of the most stimulating years of my working life. It brought out the best and worst in us in terms of leadership skills; I’ve had to learn much about myself and the people around me. Perhaps the most important has been around empathetic leadership, being more human and being aware of different responses to working from home.
“We’ve all had to find new ways to be a meaningful leader and that’s been good to see.”
Ian Cohen agreed. For him, the positives are there for all the industry to see and the real challenge is to learn from them and build them into new habits for the future. Otherwise, it’s a terrible, “missed opportunity”.
“Sweden has taken a different approach than other countries to living alongside the pandemic,” said Rod Kilgour, ironically. The country has been almost unique in its stance to live almost completely with the virus, opting to not force lockdowns or working from home. This didn’t phase Tiger of Sweden or Kilgour. They almost immediately sent everyone home in March and haven’t looked back.
“We introduced morning and evening check-ins for my team which then expanded across the business, from customer service desks to in-store managers. It’s a level of human interaction we’re not used to!” he conceded. But it’s working.
“This very morning I took part in a virtual training session,” he explained, “and we covered different geographies and included different leadership roles, which we would never have been able to do before.
“It’s clear this crisis has forced our hand in many ways but the experience I have had has been positive—it’s forced us to take certain business steps we may never have made in such a fast way. We’re going to be more sustainable over the long term.”
What the future holds
Empathy and agility aside, the pandemic has also restructured the socio-cultural blueprints of our businesses, according to Roberto Maranca. Schneider Electric’s data lead doesn’t miss the “tribalism” present in our physical team set-ups, claiming they didn’t encourage innovation or camaraderie.
“Everyone online creates a flatter organization. It truly feels more like we’re all in this together.”
The roundtable discussion moved from subject to subject all whilst maintaining a level of optimism often not felt in other debates. The potential change in the role of a leader in the new normal is vast. One not only has to carry on your programme changes and strategies with a hybrid team, but also act as steward for your team’s mental and physical wellbeing, architect of the optimal working week lay-out to maximize collaboration and focus, and be as adaptive as possible.
Half way through the debate, Dayne Turbitt said, “There are individuals who have different challenges across their working and personal lives that have, in 2020, interchanged. That’s a steep learning curve for all of us; I hope we’ve broken some taboos about remote working, about empathetic leadership and more, because we know the future of work will be a little different and so will how we have to lead that.”