A combination of remote working and an accelerated pace of change have made transitions more challenging than ever. Whether moving internally or externally, leaders are faced with building trust, credibility, and their networks, without being able to spend time with their colleagues face to face.
To discuss how to set leaders up for success in this environment, Partner in our Human Resources Practice and Board Practice, was joined by Michael Watkins, bestselling author of The First 90 Days, Master your Next Move, Professor at IMD Business School and co-founder of Genesis, and Danielle (Danny) Harmer, Chief People Officer at Aviva.

“Managing your talent is essential and that’s both internal talent – the leaders who are stepping up and having an impact – and external hires. You put the effort into hiring and promoting these people but then you must transition them into their new roles. There is cost to the organisation if they don’t set them up for success.”

Michael Watkins

5 key takeaways for mastering leadership transitions

  1. The added complexity of remote leadership has changed the way we navigate every one of the eight leadership transitions. Organisations need to be much better planned and structured with the onboarding process.
  2. In order to accelerate organisations out of the crisis, onboarding and talent development still need to happen, this is no time to pause. Key to making the transition successful is understanding the nature of the challenges we are putting leaders through.
  3. Leadership development has taken a new direction which acknowledges the challenges of remote working. The need for innovation, deep collaboration, shared learning, acculturation, motivation, dedication and inspiration have been magnified.
  4. Since collaboration and learning from each other is more difficult in a virtual environment we need to pay attention to these areas, and especially to those early in their careers who aren’t able to observe colleagues to understand how and why decisions are made.
  5. The way we treat people now will have an effect on retention. A combination of adaptability, inclusion and teamwork from leaders will demonstrate that they are listening.

“It will be fascinating to see to what extent the COVID crisis changes organisational cultures. The tendency to relax back into what we did before is ever present, but there has been profound progress in many senses.”

Michael Watkins

The new ‘first 90 days’ – what’s different?

New thinking in process, behaviour and leadership style are required if leaders are to effectively balance short term priorities with accelerating their organisation out of the crisis. Michael and Danny discussed a range of current challenges with suggestions on how to be more effective as a leader.

Building stakeholder connectivity remotely

Peer connection is the hardest part of the new 90 days says Michael. Peers are extremely busy and so getting time with them when you’re not an immediate part of their agenda is very challenging. Scheduling those meetings, keeping them short and making connectivity happen is one of the first challenges a new leader will face.

At a time like this it’s essential that you’ve got the connections and emotional capital in the bank with stakeholders says Danny, who was fortunate to have a few weeks face to face in her new role as CPO of Aviva before lockdown.  “It’s important that they can trust you and know that you come from a positive place, and that you’re there to support them and the organisation”.

While acknowledging this is harder to achieve on-screen there are some practices that organisations can adopt says Michael. In a recent article for Harvard Business Review  Michael and Savannah Group’s Mary Driscoll discuss onboarding leaders remotely to support better stakeholder connectivity.

Leading teams and levelling the playing field

While leaders may have to work harder at remote leadership compared to face to face, there are benefits. In a global organisation like Aviva, the playing field has been levelled with geographically remote teams feeling their voices are heard more loudly now that everyone is online.

Danny, who has remote team members, including those in Canada and Singapore, says that going virtual has given voice to those who may not speak up when they are dialling in remotely to a live forum.

“There has been some levelling of the playing field through the use of technology. We have got more considerate about using it. We are better about giving time to those who are not physically in the room.”

Increased speed in decision making

“My first day at Aviva we met as a leadership team to talk about the global virus” said Danny. Soon after she joined, there was a necessary increase in the pace of decision making that brought about more autonomy.

There were decisions that needed to be made in the next 24 hours. “The organisation trusted us to get on with it” says Danny. Handing over to HR, IT, facilities, the COO, CPO and comms team, so that operational decisions could be made more quickly:

“We identified and removed barriers that were causing problems during remote working and empowered teams that were closest to the issues to make the decisions. ” says Danny, “We have employees who are qualified medical professionals who wanted to go back and volunteer in the health service. We said yes, go, and we will pay you. It was the right thing to do and reflects the culture we want at Aviva.”

Taking ownership of your team

Taking ownership of your team has come to the fore since the pandemic says Danny who shared that Aviva has focused on developing a more holistic approach to leadership. We have given our leaders these wonderful people, says Danny, and they need to look after them. “End to end you need to support your people. Mental wellbeing, performance development, learning, having the right kit at home”.

“An organisation with our heritage has perhaps allowed leaders to lean on the structure around them and shoulder some of the responsibility. Therefore, we’ve been focused on training leaders in leading remotely as this is how an organisation can really reach your people and support them.”

Acculturation needs new channels 

Culture needs new channels and mechanisms in order to be lived remotely. In an environment where you have perhaps only seen a person remotely and in one room, how can we build and sustain organisational culture?

Leaders need to be much more present says Danny: “We’re encouraging them to do more one-to-ones”. We want to create that feeling amongst our people of ‘walking through the big yellow doors’ that sense of ‘I am in the building’. Danny feels that while the people she has onboarded recently would describe culture in the same way as those who have been here for 30 years, “some of the magic is missing”.

Aviva is using a variety of shortened communications at more regular intervals to keep its culture visible. Internships and graduate schemes have been hosted successfully online with input from the leadership team into the programmes. In terms of working practices going forward, “I think our people will keep us honest on this” says Danny. “We talk to colleagues about how they want to work in a way that is customer and commercially aligned. We are finding that even those who are keen to be in the office to re-energise would like the flexibility of two to three days a week working from home.”

Leader wellbeing

The amount of change that leaders need to go through to position themselves to survive, thrive and set up for success is huge. Both Michael and Danny have concerns about the enormous demand on leaders in terms of volume of work, pressure, and stress. Many are using Zoom all day then answering emails and phone calls which adds to the strain. “I think we all have an extra 10 to 20% workload“, says Danny, highlighting that we can’t continue at this pace forever.  “Decision making around COVID-19 is quick and we see this seeping into other areas of decision making which is great. However, we can’t sprint forever. We need the ability to go quick, quick, slow. The speed of decision making should be relative to the issue.”

The demands of the situation have been characteristic of this time, but they are not going to go away adds Michael. Leaders who focus too much on planning and execution are struggling when learning, flexibility, agility are so important. Conversely, Danny says they have seen some operational leaders really step up including those in people functions, internal communications facilities and IT. For some, the crisis has shown people at their very best.

Additional Resources

Onboarding a New Leader – Remotely

How to Master Your Next Move

The DNA of the Future Organisation

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