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.