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The four challenges keeping leaders awake at night

Remi Baker

As we start to re-imagine if not re-engage with the notion of ‘returning’, it’s crystal clear from our conversations with senior leaders across a multitude of sectors that the path forward is not going to be straight down the line. Rather, it will be winding, fraught with twists and turns and almost certainly the odd hidden crack thrown in for good measure. If we think we are being tested now as a nation, we’d better think again: the real tests still lie ahead. The reserves of resilience that leaders have built up in the last few weeks will be called upon to fuel the next phase of change.

Talking to organisations across sectors including banking, telecoms, oil and gas and retail has enabled us to capture real time data and insights on the things that are keeping senior leaders awake at night.

1.      The on-going challenges of working from home/working virtually.

The elephant in the zoom is that we’ve done it; what we didn’t expect was that we would still be doing it. Not only that, but that we may continue to do it, and for quite some time. Leaders are finding that not only are they zoomed out, but so are their teams.

The good old-fashioned phone call has taken on almost near treat status, used to break up the endless back to back-ness that virtual working has necessitated (or that some leaders have allowed to become necessary).

Leaders are noticing that they have less thinking time and they are feeling the impact of that. The ‘commute’ from one room to another does not provide the same thinking space that say, a 45 minute train ride does, either in time or quality; and the near instantaneous switch from executive to domestic duties leaves no time whatsoever for decompressing, or reflection time.

2.      The pressures of leadership

In addition to managing their own emotions, leaders are working hard to continue to create a sense of momentum and cohesion across their teams. Whilst virtual working is conducive to communicating – and many now have their operating rhythms down to a tee – what is more elusive is the sense of real connection.

This is particularly prevalent for leaders creating new teams or leading teams that were experiencing issues pre-Covid. The intensity and uncertainty of current times is bringing issues closer to the surface, with leaders recognising that it’s time to tackle some of their team’s tougher, hardy perennial issues and they are not all sure how best to tackle this.

3.      To return or not to return; and if so how and when?

This is the seemingly tactical, yet deceptively strategic, knotty issue (unless you are a leader in a sector like construction and have received relatively clear government guidance). The leaders we are working with are with are telling us that the issue of returning or not to office-based work is weighing heavily on corporate minds.

Many are looking to ride out the next few weeks to see if guidance becomes any clearer. Others are engaging their people in dialogue, recognising that there are different needs and wants to accommodate, in addition to new regulations, travel challenges and additional challenges for working parents. Some are daunted at the prospect of operating with a workforce of part time digital nomads.

4.      Living a meaningful life

As the world experiences a seismic shift on a multitude of levels, leaders are leaning into and asking bigger, existential questions. What is my purpose; who am I becoming; what sort of leader do I want to be; what do I want from life?

Despite feeling more pressured for time, many leaders are saying that they are making a concerted effort to carve out and create proper reflection time for themselves, be that personal down time or benefiting from more regular thinking space with their coach. They are also seeking to discover ways that they can embrace and incorporate some of the surprising gifts that lockdown has produced for them: quality time with family, increased sense of community and an opportunity to reconnect with nature to name but a few.

Without exception, the leaders we have spoken to are telling us that their life has changed, and in some instances quite substantially. Many are recognising that whilst these are undeniably tough times, they themselves are growing. Some talk of seeing a little light at the end of the tunnel, whilst not ignorant to the real, gritty challenges that the tough economic conditions are presenting. They are taking time to work on themselves and their teams with virtual executive coaching session and facilitated learning sessions.

Leaders need to take time to reflect, re-imagine and reboot; and they need to do so without necessarily having all the answers. This requires agility and open mindedness combined with enough adventurous spirit to deal with any unforeseen deviations along the way. Whilst the end destination may currently be out of focus or unknown, perhaps ultimately it may transpire to be better and more fulfilling than before.

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