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Lessons learned from COVID-19

Maximizing your human capital

In the second article of our Lessons Learned from COVID-19 series, we discuss the impact a strong workforce has on the resiliency of Canadian businesses.

There’s no question that a strong workforce can go a long way in successfully managing a crisis like COVID‑19. Throughout this event, everyone—from employees, to managers, to executive leaders and boards—were asked to stretch beyond their comfort zones and adapt overnight to a new reality.

Some companies were able to do this more quickly than others, largely because they already had an agile workforce in place. Specifically, in most cases, these organizations had:

  • Visionary leadership. While the job description for CEOs has been evolving for years, COVID‑19 cemented the notion that an empathetic, democratic leader is best equipped to handle a crisis. These types of leaders recognize that it’s impossible to have all the answers, so they trust their team to help guide decisions. Similarly, they consider the human experience—the needs and wants of their employees, customers and suppliers—when deciding which path to take.

    This culminates in a transparent leadership style—one built on clear and consistent communication, and a willingness to get things wrong (because they don’t pretend to have all the answers). As such, they aren’t afraid to take risks and are prepared to quickly pivot in the event of failure.

    Adam Silver, commissioner of the National Basketball Association, amply demonstrated these traits when he suspended the league shortly after COVID-19 began its international spread—months before countries put quarantine measures into place.[1] New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, also showed decisive leadership by rapidly introducing a four-level COVID-19 alert system across the country, effectively allowing the country to lockdown quickly as cases rose. These transparent leadership styles not only helped people understand the situation as it was unfolding, but created a human context that allowed them—and those around them—to respond with empathy and compassion.

  • A flexible workforce. Many organizations were focused on becoming more agile before COVID‑19 hit—and their workforces reflected that. Whether they were offering more work-from-home options, or experimenting with different work teams or collaboration arrangements, they hired people capable of adapting to new and varied situations. As a result, when their people were required to rapidly move to a 100 percent remote work environment during the pandemic, they were able to maintain—and, in some cases, increase—their productivity levels.

  • A commitment to leadership development. To be considered a strong leader today, you must have very different skillsets than those required in the past. Increasingly, agility, the ability to act quickly and a willingness to be vulnerable are becoming the hallmarks of authentic leadership. At the same time, it is becoming clear that organizational effectiveness hinges on a leader’s ability to build trust across the management team. By following what is known as the Lencioni Model[2], it becomes possible to have open, transparent discussions about any issues that arise, gain commitment to better decisions and outcomes, drive accountability and ultimately empower the team to achieve organizational goals. To help leaders build these skills, many leading organizations have offered regular leadership training in recent years—a differentiator that meant their leaders were well-equipped to handle the fallout from a global pandemic.

The path to resiliency: How to strengthen your leadership outcomes

If you’d like to become a more agile organization, a key place to start is with your people. There are things you can do to help your employees, managers and leaders become more comfortable with change—and better position themselves to weather a crisis. For instance, you can:

Encourage self-reflection

As a leader, there are likely areas where your team shines—and areas your team could improve upon. Consider the skills that are needed to succeed in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world, and identify areas that may require further training.

Invest in regular skills training

Business is changing. To keep pace, regular skills assessments and training are not only nice-to-have—they’re critical to success. Everyone, from employees to leadership, should have an opportunity to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to thrive in a changing world. Professional training programs understand this and are adapting their offerings accordingly. For instance, many professional MBA programs now go beyond economics issues to help students integrate the content, the context and the process to their own organizational framework.[3]

Connect regularly with your team

Even those employees who are self-motivated enough to thrive in a virtual work environment require regular check-ins. Not only should leaders take steps to uncover how they can better support their staff, but these conversations can help leaders stay up-to-date on various issues and to proactively address them. For instance, regular employee check-ins can offer information into customer sentiments—or signal if additional mental health support services are required.

[1] Harvard Business Review, April 13, 2020. “What Good Leadership Looks Like During This Pandemic,” by Michaela J. Kerrissey and Amy C. Edmondson. 

[2] “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni, 2002, Wiley Imprint.

[3] Raconteur. July 13, 2020 “How COVID changed the CEO skillset,” by Chris Stokel-Walker.


To read the full report, "A blueprint for moving forward: Lessons learned from COVID-19," download the PDF.

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