Emily Marsh November 26 2020

How has 2020 changed what it means to be a successful leader?

A blog about the way 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic has changed the requirements and expectations on leaders, with some tips to work on right now.

There isn’t much that coronavirus hasn’t affected this year. Choosing an outfit? You now have to find a mask to match. Planning a birthday party? Forget looking for a venue, this year it’s all about a zoom account and good wifi. We know that the way in which we work has been changed drastically, and by default this has impacted what it means to be a good leader.

Recent articles on leadership from only a year or so ago already feel very much ‘pre-COVID’, and whilst qualities like integrity and creativity will continue to be relevant, there are a number of new behaviours leaders need to get to grips with. Even within the last few months what we expect from our leaders has changed – we’re now entering the long slog of winter as a group of people that are far too familiar with terms like ‘tier 1’ and ‘social distancing’ that we’d never heard of six months ago. What people need of their leaders right now is very different to the approach required in early March, where there was a real sense of panic and adrenaline in the air. With limited time and resources, and the goalposts moving far more often than we’d like, what are the most important strengths that leaders need to develop right now?

Due to the breadth of the t-three client base, I have had the privilege of hearing about the experience of the pandemic from many different organisations and sectors, who all have different concerns about their organisations, and about how best to support and engage the people that they value so much. From our conversations with them over the course of this year, we’ve pulled together the areas that have come up time and time again when discussing the skillsets that they want their leaders to develop.


1. Embrace what works best for you

We know that one size does not fit all, and what might be a great work adaptation for one person would be another’s nightmare. Leaders need to truly understand what works for each member of the team individually – and equally as important, what works for them. Then they can take a fully inclusive approach by working with each human exactly as they are now, and with what they need (within reasonable boundaries). Having great conversations is the key to tapping into this.

It truly is just as important to have a good understanding of, and focus on, what works for you as a leader. Making sure you are in a good place and knowing what you need from your team is an important first step. Now that many of us still find ourselves working remotely, we have the time to experiment with our working styles, and truly find a routine that works best – best for your productivity, best for the team around you, and best for your mental health. Leaders need to find the routine/environment/style that works the best for them, but they also need to recognise the choices their team are making too.

An easy first step? Blocking out sections of your diary at times that you know you’ll be home schooling / taking that lunchtime run that clears your head. Then encourage your team to do the same – that way when you need to collaborate or check in you’ll be able to see at a glance when the best time would be, and you’ll both get more out of the conversation.


2. Being a strong and open communicator remains at the heart of great leadership

It might sound like a cliché, but there really is no replacement for clear, open and honest communication. When we’ve heard our clients raving about leaders that have made their people feel safe, included and inspired through the adversity faced this year, they have all mentioned how those leaders have been transparent, addressing issues head on and stating openly what they will be doing to bring the business through 2020 in one piece. We spoke to our clients, Bentley Motors, about the way they’ve supported their people this year, and a huge part of their approach was sending genuine, compassionate and straightforward messages to their people, and to their families.

Clear communication can be effective at all levels. Even being as open as possible with your team, and giving honest feedback when necessary can make a huge difference to your people’s perception of, and confidence in you.

Want to know how to get started? Honest conversations and giving truthful feedback can be tricky, so take a look at our resources on the power of feedback before you get started.


3. Bring your whole self (and your kids, the dog, that chipped mug you've had for ten years...)

Authentic leadership has been a buzzword for the last few years, but little did we know just how authentic we would have to be this year. Whether it’s little ones popping up in Teams meetings (I heard one anecdote about a child calling someone’s Chief Exec ‘Grandad’) or the postman arriving with yet another delivery just as you start your virtual presentation, it’s safe to say our worries about what might go wrong in a meeting are worlds away from missing the train or worrying about how long it’ll take to sign in at the front desk. These anecdotes are all well and good, but what being at home has really given us is an insight into the lives of our teams, and especially our leaders. Those that might have previously kept up a ‘work personality’ in the office seem a whole lot more human now that we can see a wall of family photos and a snoozing cat in the frame of their webcam. We’ve also heard stories from our consultants of people feeling safer and more willing to be vulnerable when working from home. And so whilst you might still be wishing for the day when you and your team can brainstorm round a table, or bump into a colleague in the kitchen and hash out a new idea in the time it takes for the kettle to boil, there are things you can do right now to strengthen bonds with your team and develop your authentic leadership style that you could never have done from the corner office.

A top tip? Next time you have a one to one with team members, really ask them how they’re doing, don’t just breeze past ‘how are you?’ as a greeting. They might be more likely to open up and share something that will give you an insight into their lives, and their work motivations. Make sure it goes both ways – share openly when there’s something affecting your mood or your work, and admit when your answer to a question is ‘I don’t know.’ Your team will thank you for it.

Whatever work looks like for the rest of 2020 and beyond, these skills are relevant now and look likely to continue to be impactful for your future as a leader. All that’s left to do is curate a picture-perfect zoom background – if anyone’s cracked that one yet, I’m all ears!

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