We’ve long been told that the future of work is going to be unpredictable and ever changing, meaning leaders need to be adaptable, flexible and resilient.
But few of us could have expected such a significant amount of change to come as swiftly as it has in 2020, nor the disruption to be so severe and consequential.
We’ve seen the absolute extremes of leadership during the Covid-19 crisis, with the unpredictability of the situation and the need to manage multiple challenges – along with the need to collaborate and communicate effectively at the same time – resulting in some leaders thriving and others falling apart.
We’ve seen how science-backed, swift decision-making and open and transparent communication can help suppress the virus, such as what we’ve witnessed from leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
And we’ve seen how narcissism, paranoia and ego can fuel the Pandemic.
There’s much we can learn from both of these extremes in managing the future of work.
Back in 2019, a World Economic Forum publication highlighted the three key skills leaders would need for the age of disruption.
Author Karthik Krishnan, the Global CEO of Britannica Group, couldn’t have predicted the level of disruption that would come about within just a year of publishing, but the three core skills he outlined – Learning Agility, Grounded Optimism and Resilience - have already been useful for leaders in managing this period, and will continue to be so in the future.
I’ve included variations of them in the below, as some of the key things successful leaders will work on and continually aim to improve in the future of work.
These are skills we can all learn and, where possible, continually practice in order to set up for now and well into the future – regardless of whether you’re leading a team or project yet.
How to be frankly optimistic. These past few months have been tough on everyone, but the Covid-19 pandemic is far from over – and we unfortunately can expect to see more challenges in the years ahead, whether that’s continued outbreaks of the virus, other pandemics, climate-related disasters, global upheaval and/or related economic challenges.
Without optimism, there is no hope.
And staff within any organisation will be searching for truth, as well as optimism from their leaders in order to understand the circumstances of the present and the possibilities of the future. These leaders will be able to communicate a vision, but also be frank and transparent in sharing the current reality.
They’ll be patient, calm, and able to keep up with daily news events without being overwhelmed by them. They’ll tackle the big challenges and hardest tasks with enthusiasm.
How to hire. The best organisations in the future of work will be those that have diverse teams at all levels, including among those who are directly employed, as well as contractors, and suppliers.
One key step to making diversity happen is to hire for it: by addressing the structure of roles or contracts, the language used to advertise them and the methods used to select and interview candidates (and determine a shortlist of contractors and suppliers).
Good leaders will not only oversee these things, they will communicate the benefits and need for diversity constantly. They will ensure their teams understand the gaps and the biases that may be creating limitations in their ability to operate and innovate. They will evolve their hiring and selection practices to get as broad a pool of candidates as possible.
How to include. It’s one thing to know the importance of diversity and hire for it, it’s another thing to actually make people feel included.
Inclusion isn’t a set and forget. It’s a skill that takes constant work and is aided by an ability to listen, to communicate effectively and be open and interested in others. The skill of inclusion requires asking questions, learning from others and continually self-reflecting.
It means getting comfortable with calling out unconscious bias, challenging the status quo and knowing how to harness differences to achieve great collaboration. It requires real empathy and compassion, in order to recognise the different feelings and perspectives of other people and appreciate that no two people share the same ability and capacity to cope with upheaval and external stressors.
How to keep learning. The uncertainty the Covid-19 pandemic is creating is showing the value that leaders with ‘learning agility’ can bring to an organisation facing a crisis they haven’t previously experienced.
Learning agility is the ability – and the desire – to continually take on challenges you’ve never previously encountered. This means learning, as you’re doing. It means being open and honest about your shortcomings, and willing to ask questions of others in order to get tasks done.
It may mean making difficult decisions quickly and accepting that mistakes are inevitable, in order to get an immediate outcome. Those decisions may involve having to pre-empt and predict the future – and, in some cases, rely on your instinct to determine the best course of action.
How to manage flexibly. Few managers in the future of work can expect to always be managing teams within the one location or even to be overseeing staff who are all working the same hours. Learn how to design roles according to tasks required, as opposed to time spent doing them.
Learn to respond to requests for remote and flexible work and to accommodate the varying needs of staff members. Once again, communication is vital. Effective flexible management requires foreseeing potential problems and issues that may be impacting your individual team members that could easily go unnoticed.
How to be resilient. Resilience is the skill that underpins everything else – and it’s one that’s enabled successful leadership in the past and will continue to be key to its success well into the future. Resilience matters, whether it be to deal with the tiny, daily challenges that come up or it be the more unexpected and significantly more challenging issues that emerge.
Resilient leaders have a clear vision, and can use it to navigate through challenging times. They see adversities – whether small or large – simply as setbacks to be learned from on the path to a greater goal. They are also constantly developing their network of relationships, so they have advisors and mentors to tap into when necessary and teams ready and enthusiastically able to respond.