Leaders find themselves in not only unchartered territories but a world we barely recognize. As businesses begin to tackle what going back to work will look like, leaders have to figure out how to carve out the way forward. We’ve never done this before. But that means we are ripe for a truly transformational opportunity. Leaders can play a critical role in changing the world for the better but they will need to step in and engage their staff in a much more connected, vulnerable and resilient manner.
To gather insight on this topic, I recently interviewed Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation and Founder and former Co-CEO of TransPerfect, the world’s largest translation company. Elting is one of the world’s most successful self-made women, appearing on Forbes’ list of “Richest Self-Made Women” every year since its inception. She also saw her company through world-shaking global crises including 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis, emerging stronger from both.
She highlighted the following tips for leaders to keep top of mind as they navigate this new world:
Sit with and help process the grief. The idea of leaving our personal lives at home went out the door when so many were forced to quarantine at home. Each person will need to sit and process the grief of what they lost. This may be a job, a way of doing things, or much worse, loved ones. Leaders who are looking to keep their teams engaged and to show up in a way that inspires others will need to get comfortable sitting with their staff and helping them process their grief.
Listening skills and the ability to demonstrate empathy are going to be critical during this time. Not all leaders are equipped. The good news is, this is less about your skill level and more about authentically being willing to be there for your team members.
Know that soft skills are now a ‘need to have’ not a ‘nice to have. For decades, training on so called soft skills were seen as some fun pass time that was done as an annual team bonding session. But the more uncertain and ambiguous work gets, the more people will need to know how to communicate and collaborate effectively. Considering the elevated expectations around self-awareness to build authentically diverse, inclusive and equitable workplaces, the idea that soft skills are anything, but a top priority is beyond out of date.
Though many businesses will have to tighten purse strings as they navigate coming back to work, they will need to find the time and budget investment to develop these skills in their top leadership and out through their frontlines. Doing this before there’s a major issue is akin to changing the oil on the car. Spending the time and money may seem like a pain but if you don’t do it, the whole car could breakdown. This is exactly why investing in soft skills training and development needs to be a top priority.
It’s the right time to reevaluate company values. Some values focus heavily on how the organization engages their clients or customers. The assumption is that people will apply these values internally, but this is rarely discussed or reinforced. Now is the right time to review values and determine if they include the type of culture you need to see internally and the kind of community you are building externally.
Don’t give into the temptation to put this off due to all the fires that are probably in need of being put out. Not having a staff that’s aligned to the company values sets them up to make decisions solely from compliance. This means issues like sticking to health protocols only when others are watching vs. being committed to a safe workplace for everyone.
Emphasize the ‘how’ not just the ‘what.’ The previous two tips dovetail into Elting’s third recommendation. Accountability has to move from only covering what employees do and evolve to including how they do their work. More and more data is available that shows how people are treated on the job can either save or cost the organization in terms of efficiency, turnover and brand reputation.
When conducting performance reviews, leaders should consider what individuals were able to deliver through all this year’s chaos. But they should also discuss how their approach to navigating all the unknown enabled or challenged the team. To do this effectively, leaders should be checking in with their teams now and discussing what those performance standards are instead of surprising people after the fact.
Fully leverage this time of innovation. The positive side, which has been hard to find for most, of this transformational time is that the phrases, “We’ve never done it that way,” or, “We tried that before and it didn’t work,” are no longer as easy to toss out as a resistor to change. Every business, every industry and corner of the world has had some level of shifting to their previous norm.
Elting recommends that leaders engage their staff at all levels to get good at turning problems into opportunities. Everyone should be asking what problems they see and what they wish was different. But they need to go beyond that and envision the possibilities in those answers. “After 9/11 there became a time that was ripe for entrepreneurial endeavors. It’s actually a great time to focus on innovation during an economic downturn. Investors are interested in supporting the smaller, more reliable and lower risk possibilities,” shares Elting.
Use your position to drive change and create an equitable community. “As leaders, we have to move beyond only focusing on the bottom line. Opportunities are limited for the minority groups. When you have industries designed with a specific working in mind, that has real consequences that perpetuate over time. Anyone who doesn’t fit within that design are dealing with roadblocks and setbacks that can make it near impossible to break through.”
Elting admits that she was raised to be an independent woman that was never financially reliant on anyone. She worked hard to overcome the obstacles in her path and push through the barriers set for women in business. However, instead of seeing that as the standard that should be allowed to stay in place, she has committed her efforts to give back and help build a truly equitable community.
Elting partners with organizations like American Heart Association and their Stem Goes Red program and GLAM – Girls Learning Advanced Math to reach young girls at early stages to ensure they have the resources, support and community to help them tackle the roadblocks she knows they will still face in their careers. She believes it’s critical for all leaders to, “Work today like most won’t so you can give to tomorrow like most people can’t.”