If the slings and arrows suffered throughout coronavirus had one positive business impact, it has been highlighting the skills needed to lead through change. Looking ahead to the post-pandemic landscape, the aptitude to steer a course will encompass resilience, adaptability, communication and connectedness. “COVID also accelerated the trend in leadership attributes towards the empathetic, open, transparent and inclusive,” says Kim Schmidt, global leader – leadership, people and culture for Grant Thornton International. “This shift is significant, and long-term.”
The imperative is for leaders to trade in the traditional, operations-focused model in favour of a more flexible approach, believes Hilary Haynes, global head of leadership development for Grant Thornton International. “Leaders are being called to adopt a change mindset to leverage disruption rather than being overrun by it, and challenge economic outcomes as the sole indicator of success.”
Grant Thornton’s 2021 International Business Report (IBR) revealed that businesses prioritising these traits prospered in 2020. Faced with challenges and opportunities from the fallout of the pandemic, they thrived by maintaining a clear emphasis on innovation, collaboration and empathy. “Successful leaders used the atmosphere of change to spark and support innovations that made a real difference to their businesses,” points out Francesca Lagerberg, global leader – network capabilities for Grant Thornton International.
New challenges, new attitudes
The three most important attributes for mid-market leaders remain unaltered since Grant Thornton’s 2019 research into the future of leadership. Being adaptive to change (44%), innovative (43%), and collaborative across the business (29%) are the most highly valued skills for leaders going forward, across all regions surveyed. But in 2021, other valued traits emerged. Empathy has come to the fore, with 22% of respondents citing it as key.
“Treating people in a commercial, practical but also empathetic way means when the market picks up, they want to give back to the employers that supported them,” says Lagerberg. Empathy is a vital component in creating an environment where team members feel supported, encouraged and psychologically safe.
Another characteristic emphasised in the latest IBR survey is resilience, up four percentage points since 2019 to 27%. The demands of the pandemic have seen leaders supporting employees through unpredictable, unprecedented circumstances. “In this light, resilience isn’t ‘bouncing back’ from one setback, because they just keep coming,” believes Haynes. “Rather, it is a sustainable internal strength.”
The ability to communicate with their teams has also been crucial. “COVID has changed the relationship between leaders and their people,” says Schmidt. “Even though we’ve been physically separated, we’ve connected virtually – in a many ways more deeply and personally. Leaders who authentically embrace this way of working will ensure success in the increasingly fierce talent war.”
Communication, flexibility, responsiveness, sensitivity and clarity were all verbatim responses in 2021’s IBR, reflecting a transition from prioritising ‘hard’ skills to espousing ‘softer’ characteristics. “In our virtual, global world, the ability to truly connect and build and maintain relationships is more challenging,” points out Haynes. “Leaders must find a way of demonstrating care in the words they use, the conversations they have and the actions they take.”
Winning traits in 2020
Cross-referencing the characteristics leaders valued with the growth their businesses experienced during the 12 months to November 2020 creates a more nuanced picture. A lens trained on companies that increased revenue, staff levels or exports by at least 5% reveals common leadership skills.
For this subset of winners, being innovative, supporting collaboration across the business, and being networked in the wider business community are more important than for other companies. Being empathetic is also emphasised.
“Our environment is one of flux, with new technologies and offerings, changing tides in consumer awareness, and business risks all contributing to the need for leaders to accept their world as inconstant, and be ready to take advantage of opportunities,” says Haynes. “How are you going to take advantage of new things, unless you are willing to innovate? How will you create an environment where innovative teams thrive, unless you allow them to test and learn? How are you going to test and learn, unless you allow individuals to fail and learn from those failures?”
Empathy and collaboration appear to translate into staff expansion, scoring respectively 3% and 4% above the average among businesses who increased their workforce. Innovation can be linked to revenue, with a 6% above the average score among organisations who grew their profits. Networking in the wider business community, meanwhile, scored 6% higher than the average with the exporting winners.
Being resilient and adaptive to change have been relatively less important to winning leaders throughout the pandemic. While this appears contrary to the skills needed by leaders in challenging times, these results can be interpreted as a proactive response to COVID-19. The winners led change through innovation, collaboration and empathy; while those focused on responding to and surviving the pandemic adapted to changing circumstances and endured through resilience.
A framework for future leaders
Grant Thornton’s IBR research suggests that, for leaders in the post-pandemic world, adapting to change while innovating and collaborating across the organisation to spearhead solutions is the model for the future. By taking practical steps to create a culture of communication, where everyone is able to contribute, leaders can create organisations robust enough to thrive in 2021 and beyond.
Resilience is important, but rather than being viewed as a single concept, it should be recognized as a construct of different factors, and measured against a sliding scale. Resilience could be composed of a strong sense of purpose, the ability to learn and grow, access to strong relationships and supportive guidance.
Successful leaders will structure their leadership around connections across the company, working with and being empathetic towards team members, encouraging everyone to contribute – and thereby fostering innovation. “The world is more uncertain than ever before,” says Lagerberg. “So in order to thrive, leaders need to be radical and energetic to generate a positive impact in terms of the growth and innovation.”
To innovate means being able to trial, learn and sometimes fail, adds Haynes. “To be willing to fail, individuals must be able to take a chance, be courageous, knowing that new behavior is encouraged, not sanctioned.” From a leadership perspective, this means creating a culture where team members strive to learn, contribute and create.
“Recruit from a diverse talent pool and then actively encourage opinions around doing things in a new, different way; coach rather than tell,” Haynes advises. “Actively leading in a way which encourages innovation requires a leader who is self-aware and commits to empowering those around them, while steering the ship with a clear sense of purpose.”