COVID-19 descended upon the world with a suddenness that no one was prepared for. It created a situation that no leadership courses or training prepares one to deal with. Leaders at every level — organization, state or country had to decide between tough choices. And there was no guide book that could tell what was the right decision. Especially at the country level — the choice between a lockdown that carried the hope of social distancing & thereby slowing or reducing the likely impact of the virus at the cost of a huge hit to economy and the other of letting business run as usual and hope that other measures would be good enough to deal with the impact. The former choice has eventually been a decision in most countries. And all now have to live with the undesirable impact of that — huge blow to economy.

The world post COVID 19 promises to be equally challenging. At each organization level, they are likely to face the brunt of the impact. There are already discussions on some of the challenges that businesses will face:

  1. Slowdown of economy
  2. Fear of job losses
  3. Managing costs
  4. Increasing sales

There are likely to be different response by leaders across organizations. Some of the responses that one hears about are:

  1. Lay off employees
  2. Cut wages unilaterally
  3. Push the sales teams to increase sales (demand more)

Most of these responses are decisions that leaders/ leadership teams may end up taking with the paradigm that they are the only ones who have to find solutions to the situation at hand. Or with a paradigm that they are best placed to find answers and the rest have to execute. Or that, if they push the teams hard enough, they will be able to deal with the situation. Or the belief that if they focus on resolving their situation only, the rest of the situation will improve on its own. In the bargain, they end up taking decisions based only on their perspectives.

Some of these decisions are likely to have a reverse impact on the prevailing situation. For example, if every organization decides to lay off people with the assumption that this will help them reduce costs and come out of the crisis soon, this likely to escalate the fear amidst the workforce across the industry. And fear is likely to impact behaviour where the propensity to spend goes down as people become more cautious. Additionally, this will erode the trust in leaders/ leadership teams. Thereby, the situation will only worsen or take much longer to improve.

So, does this mean that the challenges are not real? Definitely not. The organizations will face the challenges described above. The question is — are there alternative paradigms through which the challenges could be dealt with?

From our experience, there is an opportunity for the following 2 paradigms to serve as an alternate way of dealing with the situation:

  1. Only I (leader)/ we (leadership teams) have to find all the solutions
  2. We are not an entity in isolation but part of a larger ecosystem.

These paradigms will open up the opportunity to co-create solutions by “Involving internal teams” and “Collaborate with different entities”. Let’s take a few examples of how this could potentially play out in dealing with different challenges:

  1. Managing costs — The fundamental need to manage costs is about enhancing cost competitiveness and raising cost consciousness. Internal teams can be involved to find opportunities to identify areas where cost competitiveness could be improved and implement solutions to improve costs. High probability that the leaders & leadership teams are surprised at the outcomes. Few decades back, the entire TQM movement leveraged this paradigm to raise quality & cost consciousness in organizations. However, it got positioned as a movement relevant to quality & manufacturing organizations. The principles on which it is based, are however, one of genuine involvement of people to co-create solutions.
  2. Managing cash flows in the near term — this is another dimension of managing costs, whereby managing fixed costs in the short term may become important. People costs are definitely one element of managing cash flows. Laying off people & reducing salaries are some of the ways to deal with managing cash flows. However, which one is done & how it is done could make a difference. At the heart of it, it is about managing the equation between supply & demand of fund availability in the short term. Making that need transparent to the internal team and inviting voluntariness in taking decisions on the extent of cut or deferment of salaries will bring involvement & ownership of the team on such decisions. This will need to be done along with laying guidelines on the milestones in which the deferment or cuts will be restored. And then involving the team to find solutions to reach those milestones will get the team focused on serving a common purpose.
  3. Managing growth — Managing growth in the post COVID 19 scenario will require a realistic assessment of the market scenario and identifications of the assumptions about growth & sources of growth that have been made in the past. Doing this through the involvement of team members is likely to trigger the creation of different options to grow business. For example, there may be opportunities to collaborate with other organizations in complimentary businesses without increasing own costs significantly. There are already examples of some organizations taking this step — e.g. Marico tied up with Zomato & Swiggy to reach their products to customers. This could open up the possibility of a new channel to reach the same end consumer and grow the business without significantly increasing costs.

Pursuing these alternate paradigms of leadership will lead to enhanced trust in leaders & leadership teams and a higher engagement and ownership amongst the teams. Done across, this has the potential to enhance the confidence level of the industry in accelerating the process of recovery from the impact of COVID 19. It will also lay the foundation of new approaches to leading people & businesses.

What does it take to live or practice this new paradigm. The following are possibly what will determine the success of living the new paradigm:

  1. Authenticity — People recognize authenticity when they see one. For someone who has for long been seen as in-authentic, it can be that much more difficult. One way to start being authentic is to share one’s own vulnerability & invite others to participate in finding solutions to deal with the vulnerability. The reality is that all human beings are vulnerable. Yet, many leaders who believe in being the ones to provide solutions, display a bravado & strength on the surface even when they are struggling. Most people are able to see through and this reduces the credibility of the leader. Openly acknowledging vulnerability with an invitation to participate in finding solutions builds authenticity.
  2. Genuine involvement — People experience genuine involvement when the purpose of what needs to be done & the principles on which they need to work is clear. It is then then that they get involved in finding solutions. Co-creation with the involvement of multiple minds requires establishing the purpose (why) of what needs to get done & the principles that govern the involvement (e.g. desire for genuine win-win is one such principle; listening to understand multiple perspectives is another)
  3. Facilitation skills — The earlier two represent the mindset for the leader being facilitative. Additionally the leader needs to develop the skills to be able to involve the team in a meaningful conversation to serve a purpose. (More about this in the next post)

Let me end with an example of how both paradigms get played out, with an example. Many years ago, during an interaction with students on being a facilitative leader, during the FAQs, one student shared a situation and asked how would a facilitative leader deal with it differently. The situation was as follows:

Student (Arun): I used to work in this manufacturing company. The boss used to put a lot of pressure on us to work even on holidays several times, especially in the last quarter. He was really unfair? How does one deal with such a boss & how would a facilitative leader do it differently?

Me: Do you know why the boss pushed you all to work extra hours?

Student (Arun): No.

Me: All right. Let’s do a role play. I will play the boss & take the same situation, with some assumptions. You play your role as you would with the boss and we will review the interaction at the end. Are you ready?

Student (Arun): Yes

Me: Arun, I have asked you & the other team members to share about a situation we have all been experiencing & to seek your inputs on what we need to do. Every month towards the end and in the last quarter, we are faced with a situation that the market needs us to send some material & we are falling short in supplying the same. We are faced with the same situation now. I am concerned that we will fall short in supplying to the market & that will mean a loss to the company & to our credibility within the company. What do you think we should do?

Student (Arun): Don’t worry sir. We will work harder to meet the supply.

Me: What do you mean work harder. As it is our team is working hard enough. With capacity that we have and the working days left, we will definitely fall short.

Student (Arun) (spontaneously): We will put in extra hours & work over the weekend. If we do that, we will be able to meet the requirement.

Me: I hate encroaching on the weekend. And it definitely cannot become a regular practice.

Student (Arun): Let’s do it for this month sir. We will find a way out for ensuring that this does not become a regular practice. I think, if we restructure the manning, we can work a way out to work on all days while ensuring each one gets a day off. The details will need to be worked out though.

Me: Let’s pause Arun. Do you realize you offered to work on the weekend. So, what was different between your earlier experience and this interaction?

Student (Arun): When you stated what the situation was and why it was important to produce more and involved me in finding the solution, it was clear that we had to work extra to meet the requirement. It became my responsibility as well to find a solution. And you showed concern about us losing our weekend and not wanting this to become a practice. That also told me that you wanted a win-win solution and that the approach was not of one time but to find a sustainable solution. That helped too.

Me: So, now do you understand how facilitative leaders work?

Student (Arun): I do. But it does require deep listening skills and genuine willingness to involve the other person to be a facilitative leader.

Me: You have captured the gist very well. Thanks.

I hope this, post opens up some possibilities of the opportunity that the current situation represents. Look forward to reflections, views & feedback.

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