WE HAVE spent more than 500 days in lockdown of one level or another. Our lives have been disrupted like none of us has ever imagined. Many of us have been vaccinated, some of us have even contracted COVID 19. But the truth is we will never be free of it.
COVID 19 will become endemic, and now it’s as contagious as chicken pox – on average each infected person will transmit to 5 people rather than about 2 when the earl COVID variants arrived. The science is already telling us to prepare for a future of booster vaccinations – not to avoid becoming infected but to avoid the worst symptoms and, critically, to avoid dying. The low touch economy; managing dose, distance and dispersion; changing ventilation systems; and, continuing to wear masks, sanitise and social distance, is the new normal.
There is no going back to the old normal, but have we actually, truly, acknowledged this? We have lived through rolling waves of change; from working from home to trying not to drown under a tsunami of email and living simultaneously in constrained physical spaces and enormous, all-pervasive virtual environments. Have we adapted our thinking to a changed future? Are we actually all on the same page, virtually, or just going through the motions?
By and large we all transitioned to working remotely, but we did because we forced to as an emergency measure rather than a thought-through process. Many of us are already looking forward to returning to what we once had. But part of that’s gone. We all get through life with a mental map of the territory we are traversing, which allows us to act almost intuitively. When we get promoted or change jobs, we find that the old map doesn’t work anymore. That forces us to change. The successful leaders learn the new terrain and its challenges, the struggling leaders bluster. Those in the middle tend to fake it, groping about, till they make it, but at unnecessary cost to all.
COVID-19 has thrown out all of our maps. But far too many of us are still committed, consciously or not, to use the old map. We see people who were good in one domain in the past, transplanted into new domains, trying to make what worked for them then, work for them now. It won’t happen. We can’t make the map we had for the old world magically work for the new world through some form of wish fulfilment.
Instead, we need to start structuring our understanding of this new world so that we can structure action. The key to that is how fast we learn. Great leaders learn fast, assimilating new contexts very quickly. They adapt what they have learnt to the situation at hand and at the same time build new concepts and understanding to cross the new terrain. The problem is that too many leaders have become fossilised, with baked-in ideas they can’t or won’t change unable or unwilling or learn anew. And that is where they become dangerous.
The world is always changing and evolving, but the pandemic has brought about this disruption at a pace and a volume that few could have foreseen. It’s critical that we make sense of this – to build a new map. We are living in times of high levels of uncertainty, and it is incumbent upon us as leaders to reduce the levels of fear in those we lead.
As the irrepressible Professor Eddie Obeng says; when you add change to change you get chaos. The way that you transition from a state of chaos to proper change is learning. It starts, says Obeng, in his great TED talk “Don’t change anything”, by understanding that change is not rigid but incredibly fluid. It’s critical that we don’t confuse ourselves in the process and that we bring the people with us. As leaders, the question we should be asking ourselves is not “what do I do now?” but rather “who do I go to for advice?”
The good news is that there is an incredible amount of resources available at the click of a mouse. There are companies who not only provide tools for remote working but partner with you to make remote work a success. If we are honest, most of us will admit that we didn’t perfect working remotely. To do so means more than just access to data, laptops and routers, it means looking for the best platforms to work on, collaborate on and keep track of what is being decided. It involves moving entire departments fully online, along with all the policies from HR to legal, all the spreadsheets and living documents of what is being discussed and decided at brainstorms and meetings so that they can be accessed – and added to – in real time and remotely.
Change is about making sense of the tsunami of emails, learning to triage them – and brutally cull the unimportant. It’s about becoming operationally effective without going down a rabbit hole of individual projects losing perspective about what everyone else is doing. Some people have loved working from home, for others it’s been the death knell for their careers – unable to socially graze at the watercooler or idly gossip at their desks, recharging their energy on each other’s physical connectedness because virtual connectivity just doesn’t cut it. This has brought its own challenges to leaders, learning to actually schedule check ins with team members, hire psychologists and life coaches.
The most important aspect about leadership though remains about creating certainty in the chaos for the members of the team. It’s vital that they get to see the cognitive structure beyond the mystery that is the chaos, which will underpin and guide the change. Once you’ve done that, it’s critical to get them to help shape and contribute to that structure so that they share that future with you – and ensure that it succeeds.
Getting them to change with you is not the end, in the words of a great British leader it’s the end of the beginning. We will survive this pandemic, but there will be others, there will be other disruptions. This time, we’ve discovered new efficiencies and we’ve forged new collaborations. We’ve evolved.
To survive and to flourish, post COVID, we will have to keep on evolving to fix a world that is broken and in which business has changed. To do that, we have to change the purpose of business, together; we can’t do it on our own. It’s the only way to ensure that we actually recover – both our lives and our businesses. The best vaccine of all though will be our ability to learn, and unlearn, at the same speed of the change around us.
- Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa