COVID has taught us it’s time to change the way we lead

A former BBC exec shares research-backed tactics for communicators to maintain post-pandemic momentum, clout and authority.

How to lead in a post-COVID landscape

Communications teams have been at the heart of the pandemic since day one.

For most, it has been the most challenging, exhausting and emotional time of their lives.  For many, it was the moment when execs turned and listened to them, center stage, with greater respect than ever before.

As the vaccines kick in and restrictions ease, now is the time to reflect on what you’ve all been through. What have you learned from the last 15 months? What has it told you about the best ways to lead?  How does it help you meet the challenge of what is next?

There have been plenty of practical takeaways from communicating in a crisis. Which channels were most effective? Which messages resonated amid the noise of COVID-19 communication? Which did not? How did you sustain your teams through grueling periods of uncertainty, chaos and fear?

It’s crucial to review the lessons learned over the past year, but you must also put plans into action for a profoundly changed business landscape.

Fighting for a place at the decision-making table

Communications leaders have often had to fight for their place at the top table. At this moment in history, they are at the heart of triage – life support machines to business survival.  In many cases, communicators were literally the difference between life and death.

In March 2020, as the world began to lockdown against the virus, I set out on a project that led to a book, “Leaders in Lockdown.” I followed 28 global business leaders through the crisis – sharing emotional and intimate moments with them as they hunkered down in their houses and their kitchens trying to make sense of what was happening. It was a window into the world, observing business leadership in action at a time when no one had the answers. Communications was top of nearly everyone’s agenda.

The leaders I worked with ranged from CEOs of hotel businesses in Asia, to media moguls, to the titans of financial services, to the big brains of American tech, to entrepreneurs whose billion-dollar companies lay in tatters.

Now, I have been sharing these insights on leadership with hundreds of senior executives, including many comms professionals.  The aim is to help them stand back and take that pause – many for the first time since the virus broke out. The sessions have been cathartic, raw and immensely helpful.

The hope is that this process of reflection and renewal will help leaders prepare to adapt their styles for leading out of lockdown.  The evidence of these hundreds of leadership conversations points to what leaders want to hold onto from the peak of the pandemic — and what they want to leave behind. Most want to keep the agility and speed they demonstrated, but they want to do that in a way that doesn’t burn everyone out. The pace and volume that communications teams had to deal with was awesome but not sustainable.

The leaders we consulted want to maintain the tight collaboration and the focus on essential work they achieved as the virus took hold. The silos came down. They want to give up being busy fools, doing unproductive work that doesn’t affect the true outcomes they are trying to achieve. The endless back and forth of finalizing announcements and other ancillary work was cut to the quick. For communicators to maintain this high level of influence, it must remain that way moving forward.

The leaders we have worked with are passionate about holding onto the care and compassion they saw in the bleakest moments of the pandemic. They would dearly love to keep the trust they felt between themselves and their colleagues in this most stressful time in their careers. “Trust the judgement of your comms teams,” was a familiar cry.

To enable communication leaders to take forward these learnings from lockdown requires the evolving of a new style of leadership. Command and control as a blunt instrument is dead. The crisis has shown that. Presenteeism as a trait is equally redundant. Employee empowerment is now king.

The challenge right now for communications leaders is considerable. The pace of change will likely keep spinning at a dizzying pace. The importance of communicating to employees, customers, investors and other key stakeholders will never be greater.

To keep an effective and powerful place in the “C-suite,” communications leaders must take their own leadership development much more seriously. My clarion call is to put your own leadership style under the microscope. How can you improve and maintain internal influence? How can you remain indispensable in a post-pandemic workplace?

Only by asking these hard questions — and making adjustments as necessary — will you be equipped best to lead out of lockdown.

Atholl Duncan is a former communications director and BBC executive and now the Chair of Leadership Development Business, Black Isle Group.

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