‘Reimagining Leadership’ – Virtual RoundTable

May 30, 2021

While there is now a great deal of discussion concerning the impact of COVID-19 and implications for working practices and human resource management (HRM), much of the content and comment on these topics tend to be of a general nature, offering observations and/or guidance that seek to define what a ‘new normal’ might be. For example, that remote working will become the norm, or that working practices will become more flexible.

As we progress from a pandemic mindset to a post-pandemic mindset, many HR Business leaders are now starting to think about business leadership and the skills the current and next generation of leaders need in order to handle the stress and uncertainty of the new normal and any future potential threats to local and global economies.

Leadership is one of the most difficult jobs in normal times, and it’s made even more so by the conditions of the past year. So the question raised is, “How is leadership going to look in a world where we are in a time of heightened volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA)?”

Denise Harmer – Associate Director at Frazer Jones took the opportunity to have an informal and open discussion with four key HR business leaders from around Australia – Kate Witenden – Head of Human Resources at American Express Business Travel, Rosie Stilin – Executive General Manager, People & Culture at RSL Lifecare Limited, Ellissa Burleigh – Head of Employee Experience & Culture at Estia Health, and Margaret Haarhoff – Global Director People & Culture at Telix Pharmaceuticals Limited.

Here’s what they had to say about Reimagining Leadership and what that has meant for their businesses over the last 12 months during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How the leadership approach/strategy of the business served your leaders during 2020?

In the beginning of COVID-19, Margaret Haarhoff advised that the leadership style was more like a command-and-control style, that drove the business and allowed the business to continue to operate.  However, it got very granular with this style and approach, as it forced employees to deliver on KPI’s, to ensure that productivity was maintained as people continued to work remotely and were, therefore, less visible to the company. Whilst this method was quite drilled down and restrictive it allowed employees to gain the confidence of management and it did result in increased productivity from a quality of output perspective. It did show that it could build trust on all levels, but the danger is that the command-and-control leadership style served at a point in time and that it is not a style that should be considered to continue. Whilst employees are looking to leaders for the granularity, but the leaders are now starting to take the command-and-control leadership style too far, which could result in a reversal of the trust gained in the beginning.

Within the private health space, Rosie Stilin advised that the leadership approach and strategy needed to take a huge turnaround in the middle of the pandemic, as what it was preparing to do to support the pandemic, quickly needed to change when the surge in COVID cases did not eventuate. From a leadership perspective, it was essential to ramp up communication and engagement, and how to utilise the workforce when the work was not flowing in, and to prevent having to lose staff due to the lack of work. It was important for the local leadership teams to step out of the day-to-day work, and step into a leadership role of galvanising the teams, managing the stakeholders, and take on a very different role. The leadership team had to focus on rebuilding the trust with the employees and flattening the fear of not only the virus but of reducing headcount or work hours and pay. In the first few months of the pandemic the elements of visibility, trust, and working on team and whole of business was really important for the whole leadership team.

Two things that stood for Ellissa Burleigh at the beginning of the pandemic was, firstly, the way that leaders made decisions had really changed.  Pre-pandemic, the rhetoric was “it can be hard to get things done around here”. However, COVID forced the leaders in the organisation to better take the ideas from the ground up and the leaders became the facilitators of quick decision making. The original forums for decision-making collapsed and new channels emerged. And secondly, the other area that challenged leaders during the pandemic was having to step into and understanding the “whole of person” in workforces. For an organisation that focuses its value proposition on wellbeing, it was about truly engaging in a different conversation about understanding an employee’s “whole life”. For some leaders it was a natural leadership style, but for others it was much more difficult. It was less about who I can trust in an office perspective to think about how to accommodate a whole of person in balancing work with anxiety of the pandemic, as well as the pressures of business. Ellisa believes that this is something that will stay and that good organisations will keep the balance right and embed it in the way we work and what is offered to employees.

Kate Witenden commented that when we reflect on being in a crisis like that of COVID-19, are our leaders equipped and able to deal with these types of crises… “the answer is absolutely not” she said. Like anything in life, there are people that have a natural talent to be able to rise to whatever challenge there is, but we are not all equal. There are other leaders that need a lot more care and support than others, but it does not make them any less than those that don’t.

In the unprecedented times of 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic, were organisations prepared to support their leaders?

Ellisa commented that many people within businesses were comfortable and constantly using the terminology of unprecedented times, commenting that as a business we have never faced times like this before and have had to make decisions we have never had to make before, however interestingly she did not come across many organisations that thought differently about how they were going to support their leaders, so on reflection realised that many organisations didn’t bring in the support mechanisms like coaches or structured support. Organisations were asking leaders to make really important decisions for both businesses and people, but there was no real structured support for them. Moving forward she believes that there needs to be a better focus on what learning and development looks like for leaders beyond the regular professional frames.

Margaret mentioned that it is really important to realise that our leaders are all human as well. There was a disproportionate bit that COVID took resilience to a whole new level. And whilst we expect our leaders to step into that space, many organisations did not provide the support that was needed. The question now is did we damage those leaders or the business by not providing that support when such huge demands were required on our leaders.

Learnings from COVID-19 about external connectivity and ways to deal with a crisis.

Whether you are an HR professional or a leader of an organisation, what was missing was being able to connect outside the organisation to see what others are doing, so you don’t have to re-invent the wheel. At the start of COVID everyone was grappling and struggling to work out what to do, so it did level the playing field a little. Organisation competitiveness disappeared and it was more about how to keep a business running and to keep all staff. Margaret commented that she thought we could of all done better in this area, by helping our leaders connect with each other externally, and then HR professionals to connect externally and now to keep that momentum going. The power of joint voices is interesting and a big opportunity for businesses as a whole.

Rosie commented that in the private health sector, they did work out how to communicate and connect both internally and externally (something that was never done pre-covid), but they saw the opportunities that could be gained from monthly connection and have decided to continue use this method moving forward. Whilst it was challenging making the change, the positive impact that was achieved far outweighed the negative of sharing information. This new format of connectivity helped break down the hierarchy of the past and meant that issues did not need to follow the hierarchical structure and therefore could get actioned quicker.

Is there anything that you have adapted that is here to stay?

The main thing that all participants agreed on was that all businesses are working on some kind of new hybrid working model. Offering teams across the country the option to continue working from home or come into the office.

Whilst most agree that businesses would love employees to come back into the office more frequently, that this is still not at a time when this can be done. Many businesses are encouraging employees to come into the office at the same time as their own teams for as many days as they seem fit. However, Ellisa is concerned that this model does not allow cross-team interactions and engagement.

The traditional method is still the preferred method however, businesses are now more focussed on how people and teams can most efficiently and effectively connect with each other. The discussion has changed to relationship building, and maintaining relationships, discussing new ways of working rather than about how and when to return to the office.

Ellisa spoke about the “propeller model” of designing the new working model, which is to take the three best parts about working in the office with the three best parts from working from home and combining them together, and it provides a great framework on how the new office can work effectively.

Denise commented that within the legal sector they have seen huge changes in attitudes towards remote working.  Pre-Covid, a work from home model was almost unheard of, however, now there are large legal offices putting in place formal work from home arrangements with employees given a three / two model for three days from home and two from the office. Denise commented that it is interesting watching how industries do different things in regard to setting new working arrangements. Some have implemented new formal agreements; some have placed the responsibility n the hands of the employee and some are mandating a percent of in-office verses remote.

Margaret has commented that she has seen a level of anxiety amongst employees about not returning to the office. There seems to be a disconnect amongst employees that are still wanting a connection with others as they no longer want to feel isolated, however are anxious about the return to the office. The anxiety is associated not only with having to work in an office, but also how to travel to the place of work, and actually leave the safety and comfort of the home that many have been working in full-time since March 2020.

What do you see as the top initiatives for HR Leaders and what is being prioritised?

Rosie commented that for her it will be really interesting to see how HR and Organisation Leaders work on cultural development.  Remote working platforms such as zoom and teams has not been and will never be conducive to building culture or an organisation that gels together, as the heart of culture in an organisation is that of trust and belonging. So as HR Leaders we need to start thinking creatively on how to answer that issue and what needs to be put into the mix to help cultural development within the organisation whilst trying to continue with the new hybrid working model.

Another area Rosie commented on was talent capability and internal capabilities. The private health sector has a lot of high recruitment needs, due to growth within the sector, and internal capabilities of expanding the knowledge and expertise of those already in the business.

Margaret commented that one of the top priorities for her is leadership development. However, what does that look like and how can it be articulated?

Just as we have re-examined the way we work in response to the events of 2020, so too should we re-evaluate what a strong leader looks like and how organisations as a whole can support their leaders during times of need. While this pandemic won’t last forever, what will remain is a new type of effective leadership formed through the evolution of how we are working now. Whilst the qualities and skills from the past are always vital — determination, effective communication, passion (the list goes on) — the COVID-19 pandemic has reshuffled the deck. Transparency, seeing ourselves and each other as people first, a willingness to adapt, and an openness to listen. These are the new characteristics of strong leadership that will determine who thrives in this new post-pandemic economy.

If you are interested in being part of our conversation and/or would like to join one of our HR or WHSE Virtual Roundtables, please get in touch with a member of the Frazer Jones Australia Team.