The most vital skills for leaders in a post-Covid-19 world

Resilience, empathy, cultural intelligence, and communication. The pandemic gives us an opportunity to reassess the qualities we value most in our managers and leaders, says Louvain School of Management’s Marie-Therese Claes, in presenting new research from CEMS

A global survey of more than 1,700 professionals, carried out by CEMS – the Global Alliance in Management Education, has revealed a shift in the qualities required of managers of global teams in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the past, the traditional ‘leader-centred’ approach was something concrete – a collection of skills to be taught and learned. Leaders were judged on strategy and the bottom line. However, although strategic vision was ranked as the most important leadership quality both pre-and post-crisis in the research, it declined in importance by six percentage points. Having a results focus also dropped in importance pre-and post-crisis, by nine percentage points.

This decline makes sense. Results-focused leaders are driven by achievement and end goals. Strategic vision indicates ideas for the direction and activities of business development. Both are still important, but both centre on plans. As one CEO said to me: ‘I could leave our strategic plan on the plane, nobody could imitate what we do.’ In a time when planning has become nearly impossible It is not ‘what’ that counts, but ‘how’.

The CEMS research found that fluid human skills are key to making sure global teams thrive during times of disruption. Four of these skills are detailed below:

1. Resilience

The number of respondents who thought resilience was an important attribute almost tripled since the pandemic started.

Resilience is the unflustered ability to do what needs to be done in any given situation, no matter how challenging or unexpected. Over the coming months, things will often not go as planned – we will face severe difficulties, failures, deadends. Still, we need to move on, pick ourselves up and start again. As conditions are changing, leaders need to be flexible and adapt. These efforts are not useless: even if we don’t see the result now, many accomplishments throughout history have been the result of initial failures and conflicting demands.

2. Empathy

Leaders require empathy to feel and understand the changing climate, both inside and outside organisations. Inside organisations, uncertainties can undermine morale and engagement in the team. Outside organisations, leaders have to keep their fingers on the pulse of the world in a more intense way than before the pandemic.

Employees may be faced with many more worries than ever – job security, finances, health, balancing working from home with family life and managing competing demands. Our teams are international – distributed worldwide, but now living in very locally defined and restricted regions. They need more one-to-one support. All of this means that leaders must listen more and listen better, to understand, not just to hear, and respond with empathy and heart.

3. Cultural intelligence

More than ever, leaders face contradictory challenges such as ‘managing for today and managing for tomorrow at the same time’. Life has become more ‘local’, as we cannot travel and meet the way we used to, but at the same time it is essential to keep the global picture and mindset.

Not being able to travel and meet face-to-face means greater cultural intelligence is required, as we have less information available (no facial expressions and no informal chats full of indirect messages, for example). US author, F Scott Fitzgerald wrote in 1936 that: ‘intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.’

Likewise, cultural intelligence entails paradoxical thinking – a ‘both-and’ mindset. The question is not ‘shall I do A’ or ‘shall I do B?’ But rather: ‘how can I combine both A and B?’. In other words, acquiring a helicopter view of the world, while being wide open to new ways and possibilities. In particular, the diversity we have in our global teams is a source of different perspectives and meanings, which can unlock innovation.

4. Ability to communicate

Many respondents believe that they will communicate more often with international colleagues over the coming months due to the shift to virtual. Of course, this is not without its dangers. Misjudged or inappropriate communication, particularly from leaders via digital platforms (where it is not always easy to read intentions), can be misconstrued, causing long-term damage to the quality of relationships. Conversely, effective global communication drives engagement and productivity.

In their communications during this time of unprecedented crisis, leaders must make sure that every employee feels valued and included in the organisation: that their contribution is important, concerns heard and that they understand the conditions in which they are expected to work. Flippant or hasty email communications should be avoided, and extra effort needs to be made to communicate individually with every employee on a regular basis, regardless of location.

Embrace the qualities we value most

The coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally disrupted ‘business as usual’ for many organisations. However, as this research shows, it has also presented an opportunity to reassess the qualities we value most.

In order to survive in this increasingly unpredictable, complex and changing environment, organisations and leaders need to be able to emerge as resilient, empathetic, and culturally intelligent communicators.

Marie-Therese Claes is a Professor of Cross-Cultural Management at Louvain School of Management, Belgium. She teaches on the CEMS Master in International Management and is part of the Global Leadership Faculty Group.

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