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KJR’s 2 cents on COVID-19-era leadership

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While we’re on the subject of Total Cost of Ownership, News of the Weird reports that it costs the U.S. Mint 2 cents to manufacture each penny.

Which has, I’m sure, a clear tie-in to this week’s topic: How COVID-19 has transformed business leadership.

We can keep this short: It hasn’t.

Except that it has aimed a spotlight at those who are in leadership roles but shouldn’t be.

Back in 2002, in InfoWorld, I published these words:

Leadership is easiest in a crisis.

Crisis provides motivation and mutual trust, something leaders have to provide themselves in less urgent times. Crisis also provides alignment of purpose, allowing leaders the luxury of authoritarian decision-making. In less urgent times, leaders must consult with others, building alignment of purpose through the hard, delicate, necessary work of careful consensus building.

Leadership calls for competent execution of eight tasks (see Leading IT: <Still> the Touchest Job in the World): (1) Setting direction, (2) making decisions, (3) staffing, (4) delegating, (5) motivating, (6) managing team dynamics, (7) establishing culture, and (8) communicating. They comprise the job description for anyone in charge of an organization.

Before COVID-19 these eight tasks were what leaders had to master. That hasn’t changed, except that the stakes are higher and some of the tasks have become more difficult.

That the stakes are higher is obvious. So is what’s making many of the eight tasks harder — acceleration of the ongoing shift from in-person to remote employees.

Leaders still have to set direction. Excellent leaders won’t delegate that task to the virus, limiting their horizon to today’s immediate challenges. Yes, they do have to set a course that navigates through the crisis. But they’re also looking down the road to anticipate how their markets will change and what they need to do to take advantage.

Adequate leaders make decisions. The best leaders pay attention to how they make them, or, better, to who makes important decisions and how. Because the best leaders recognize that if they’re the best person to make most decisions they’ve done a terrible job of …

Staffing: The need to attract, recruit, hire, and promote the best talent available is, if anything, more important. That’s true for most businesses right now, because the stakes of bad decisions are higher, so leaders need the best in place to delegate decisions to. That means retaining the best in the face of painful layoffs and furloughs.

But it’s the soft skills of motivating, managing team dynamics, engineering and establishing culture, and most of all communicating that haven’t changed at all in principle … nothing about how they have changed has altered the essence of leadership one bit.

But leaders will have to brush up on the techniques they use.

Take a simple example — one that used to be so broadly accepted that it has become an assumed part of the leadership landscape: managing by wandering around. Guess what: Most business leaders, should they wander around, will wander around empty cubicles.

This and other informal techniques like so-called “skip lunches” (because those at the table communicate directly with an executive leader, skipping the intermediate leadership levels) to get an unfiltered view of What’s Going On Around Here … Zoom-based skip lunches are a non-starter.

And in a related development, those who work in teams will seldom if ever meet their teammates face to face either.

Merely competent managers will accept purely transactional relationships as an inevitability and adjust how they assign and receive work accordingly.

Excellent leaders will fight this every step of the way, recognizing that effective organizations are still built on trust-based relationships. For example, just because Zoom has supplanted … let’s start calling them “flesh-to-flesh” interactions … is no reason for leaders to abandon the once-common practice of weekly or bi-weekly one-on-one conversations with their direct reports.

Which gets us to communication and its sub-skills of listening, informing, persuading, and facilitating. Leaders still need to listen … to individuals, but also to figure out the more interesting challenges of organizational listening … so they know What’s Going On Around Here. They need to inform everyone of everything they need to know. They need to persuade everyone that the direction they’ve set is the right one so employees energetically help make it happen.

As for facilitation, the fine art of getting other people to listen to each other, in my experience very, very few leaders are even remotely competent at facilitating web-conferenced meetings. That’s true even of those who were quite good at face-to-face facilitation.

So how has COVID-19 changed business leadership? The job description hasn’t changed a bit. But the techniques leaders apply to their work?

These need serious attention.

Comments (2)

  • Besides the main point, but this caught my attention:

    “… it costs the U.S. Mint 2 cents to manufacture each penny” — which is why there are no physical Dutch (and most other EU country) Euro cent/2 cent coins anymore. We’ve gone for largely digital cash, and if you pay in cash, the amount is rounded to the closest Euro 0.05.

    Reply
  • Not to mention the coin shortage and many retail stores no longer giving change if someone is paying in cash.

    All excellent points about communication. I’d also have included something re: consistency of message from the top down.

    Reply

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