Being a responsible leader has taken on a deeper meaning during the coronavirus crisis, which continues to change the way we live and work, with far-reaching impact. As a former chief human resources officer (CHRO) and a current advisor to the C-suite, I’m helping companies navigate how to balance the health of their business with the health of their people.
Every organization’s workforce, culture and resources are different. I wish I could give you a one-size-fits-all solution, but it doesn’t exist. What I do know is that C-suite leaders are under the microscope more than ever. Not only are customers watching and weighing on your actions now, your employees are also.
The business landscape was shifting even before Covid-19. The social, economic, and environmental challenges of the 2020s require new approaches to leadership and responsibility—those that emphasize purpose, people, sustainability, and the global good. C-suite executive actions now are a litmus test for leadership during a crisis. Stakeholders, from employees to customers, expect companies to demonstrate a commitment to invest in their key stakeholders, per the goals set by Business Roundtable last year.
While there already have been myriad wise responses during this pandemic—from CEOs foregoing pay to keep their people employed, to boosting frontline workers’ salaries—there are five larger actions leaders can take to lead responsibly and compassionately. These aren’t just my opinion; they are based on Accenture research with more than 15,600 workers in 10 countries and 15 industries. Our study highlights what workers need from leaders in three basic areas: physical, mental, and relational. These five needs apply at all times but are magnified in crisis.
1. Elevate your most visible leaders based on their compassion and caring
Many qualified leaders in companies made it to where they are based on a thorough knowledge of business—not necessarily because they excelled at the people side of the equation. But workers told us they want confidence in their company’s ability to navigate the future and they want a leadership team focused on the compassion and care of its people. Within your leadership ranks, you will have people who can balance both business and human needs and excel at both. These are the ones you want most visible with employees now.
2. Eliminate unnecessary work
In this new reality, teams need flexibility and permission to work differently. What was “urgent” three months ago may be irrelevant now. That means long meetings are a thing of the past and “nice to have” corporate projects go by the wayside in favor of essential and forward-looking ones. Consecutive hours of uninterrupted work may not be feasible, as people deal with disrupted elder care and childcare, difficulties securing essential supplies at home, and potential healthcare issues. Managers have to evolve work rules for more flexibility, based on emotional intelligence and people’s individual needs. Educating managers on this sooner rather than later can help empower teams to adapt. And leading by example is essential.
3. Hierarchy be damned
If your people aren’t used to working in cross-functional, agile teams, now is the time to begin. You’re looking for the right outcomes—for the customer and larger society—and won’t achieve them via functional silos. Choose teams based on their skills rather than functional expertise or title. You’ll be amazed at the competence and problem-solving that rises to the top. This is a chance for your less-senior digital natives to take the lead on initiatives that could leapfrog your company—and your people—ahead in a positive way.
4. Tell a story, don’t spew data
People are wired to find meaning and respond best to stories during times of great stress and ambiguity. Consistent, transparent, and clear communication from leadership at all levels is essential to supporting productivity and mental health. In a vacuum, employees will create their own versions of the story, which can cause fear and confusion. Give employees that story, rather than just data on profitability or costs. The story is the context they desperately need to interpret and make sense of things—and know their next steps.
5. Don’t allow the crisis of the “now” to stop you from moving toward the “next”
Remember that confidence employees want in your company’s ability to navigate the future? Employees can only have that if leaders think beyond crisis-management mode. Reserve two hours per day for work focused on getting your organization and workforce ready for the future. It will feel like you’re ignoring the urgent, but two hours wisely spent can help keep your company healthy. Many of the best ideas come from adversity and hard times. Giving your people a chance to innovate toward a brighter future helps them remain resilient.
These actions have to be part of a larger context, of course. Keeping people in paid work is the number-one priority now. It’s also important to integrate your company’s purpose and values into every communication and initiative to give people the sense of belonging and connection they so desperately need during a time of quarantines and social distancing.
One example of this in action is People + Work Connect, a free analytics-based platform we developed that brings together companies who have workers available with those that have jobs to fill. Founded during the pandemic by a group of CHROs at Accenture, Verizon, Lincoln Financial Group, and ServiceNow, it puts people first.
One CHRO involved in creating this effort, Lisa Buckingham at Lincoln Financial, captured this sense of purpose and connection well: “Life is filled with many moments that matter, including some that are tougher than others. People remember who shows up during those tough times to help them through.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Practical, strategic action combined with addressing the human issues so prevalent now is the kind of responsible leadership needed in a crisis. These actions will help your organization maintain durability during the pandemic and prepare your workforce to adapt to future challenges.
Eva Sage-Gavin leads Accenture’s global talent & organization/human potential practice.
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