Leadership Effectiveness Post-COVID

By Erin Wilson Burns | January 16, 2024

Key Takeaways: 

  • Every company has unique leadership requirements; however, there are over-arching themes that are clearly linked to the new social, technical, economic, and political environment that characterizes the post-pandemic world.
  • What is expected of leaders has significantly shifted and changed post-Covid in four areas: agility, accountability of outcomes, inclusion, and authenticity. 
  • Post-Covid leadership development focuses on building the leadership competencies that differentiate your business to customers and create investor confidence.

I live in the mountains—gigantic blocks of rock that have been forced upward, twisted, and contorted into new features through the force of earthquakes millions of years ago. As we begin to move forward more fully from the disruptions created by the global pandemic and the social unrest of the early 2020s, many are coming to see the events of that time as sociological events of a similar magnitude. As the organizations we work with begin to settle into new patterns of business, it is clear that some of what is required for effective leadership has been fundamentally shifted in ways that mirror the mountains in my backyard.

In many of our clients, the last year and a half has brought an increased focus on understanding what those shifts look like for leadership in their organization. While each company we work with has unique leadership requirements, there are some over-arching themes that are clearly linked to the new social, technical, economic, and political environment that characterizes the post-pandemic world. The broad leadership fundamentals, or what we refer to as the five Leadership Code domains, are much the same and have been for some time, but the specifics in each look different over time. 

This article highlights four areas where there have been some of the more significant and most likely permanent shifts in the last few years in what is expected from leaders.

1. Agility

While the concept of agility had clearly emerged before the pandemic (change, speed, transformation, flexibility, etc.), the sudden shifts required to respond were like an accelerator boost in popular video games. We came to know that we all could make much more radical changes much faster than we had previously imagined. Leaders got more comfortable with doing something one way one day and another way the next day. While the initial months felt more like a crisis we thought would one day end, the length of the pandemic and associated disruptions and the continued economic and political uncertainty began to create responses in individuals and organizations that were more like a pattern than an event. The ability to reframe and generate adaptive responses instead of quitting or repeating things that don’t work or make sense anymore became even more important. CEOs and CHROs saw the opportunity to lean in on these patterns of behaviors and find ways to weave them in a sustainable way into the fabric of their organizations, recognizing that these skills are destined to become even more important as technology increasingly mandates change in the workplace and as the shortage of skilled workers increases.

2. Accountability for Outcomes

Closely related to the changes around agility is a nuanced but important shift in how organizations are thinking about accountability. In two different companies in completely different industries, research that tied internal performance data with leadership behaviors highlighted the need to create and feel accountability for outcomes not activities. Pre-Covid, accountability was most often defined in terms of “doing what I’m supposed to do.” Post-Covid, accountability is more often defined in terms of “doing what will matter most.” The cognitive skills to identify what—from all the possible options—is going to have the biggest impact on a company’s ability to deliver against expectations of external stakeholders, and then making sure that thing happens, is another of the important shifts in how companies are talking about their most important leadership priorities. 

3. Inclusion 

In the United States especially, but also around the world, increased visibility when people behave badly and increased expectations of younger generations have created an urgency about making systemic shifts that can meaningfully counter centuries of systemic discrimination. Organizations made bold and public promises. Perhaps more importantly people came to believe that they could (finally) make a difference. Employees at all levels in all kinds of organizations are increasingly bold in demanding (a) leaders who treat everyone with fairness and respect and (b) organizations with a leadership population that reflects the world we live in. In response, organizations are shifting from narrowly defined diversity agendas (race and gender) to more broadly defined versions of what diversity means (nationality, industry experience, ethnicity, gender, thinking styles, gender and sexuality, etc.) and shifting the language to terms like belonging and inclusion. They are also moving from a siloed lens (i.e., diversity as a standalone competency) to an integrated view of diversity (i.e., behaviors throughout the competency model that reflect the ability to seek diverse perspectives, demonstrate empathy, sponsor and advocate for diverse talent, proactively confront bias and discrimination, etc.). Like agility, they are looking to find ways to weave inclusion in a sustainable way into the fabric of their organizations. 

4. Authenticity

Finally, organizations are coming to terms with the blurring of boundaries between personal and professional lives. The divided lens through which many older workers see their lives no longer resonates with younger employees raised on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and more. As virtual and now increasingly hybrid work replaces a neutral work setting, the distinctions between personal and professional worlds feel artificial. And mental health pressures and labor shortages continue to remain significant. With fewer options to replace workers coupled with the recognition that each individual has unique perspectives and contributions, organizations are increasingly looking at ways to help even struggling employees remain productive. This requires leaders who are comfortable handling topics that used to be off-limits at work. Post-Covid leadership requires leaders who are much more comfortable talking about deeply personal topics, understand the responsibilities they incur when they do so, are clear about how they balance competing personal and professional demands, and are skilled at helping their teams navigate the challenging choices that are so often required. 

While these four concepts have always been included in comprehensive, research-backed competency models, the pandemic shifted the landscape, bringing them to the top of people’s minds, creating expectations and visibility to their fundamental importance in effective leadership. 

We are further exploring these and other themes as we revisit the 30,000+ data points we have on leadership behaviors over the last 15 years.  Stay tuned for additional insights in the next few weeks.

To learn more about how the development of these differentiated leadership capabilities can impact business results and stakeholder value in your organization, contact us

Erin is a principal at The RBL Group with 25 years of experience in leadership and strategic HR consulting.

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