It’s often said that in times of crises, people stand side by side. And over the past number of months, we’ve seen many examples of this: neighbours supporting neighbours. Communities rallying together to acknowledge the tremendous work of healthcare professionals. Companies adjusting to turn out much needed medical equipment. Colleagues connecting with colleagues mindful of the loneliness and isolation that can come with remote working.
As a senior executive search firm, Principal Connections is in a privileged position. Each day we engage with many of the board and executive leaders that drive Irish business. In the run up to the launch of Phase 2 of the government’s roadmap for reopening society and business, we decided to call upon some of the senior executives and board directors with whom we regularly engage with for their leadership perspectives from COVID-19 (thus far).
Below Pat O’Donnell, Managing Partner of Principal Connections – The Irish Office of Agilium Worldwide Executive Search Group, outlines a number of the core themes.
Boards and executive teams now have the opportunity to assess what the COVID pandemic has revealed about their existing leaders, and more importantly, how to redefine future talent management and succession pipelines. In the absence of a playbook to follow; What leaders stepped up? What leaders went missing, were found wanting, or worse, deviated from the plan? One Director of a well-known Pharma Group, remarked that “during times like these, management teams and boards get a unique chance to unveil their leaders, and rethink talent programmes and succession pipelines in ways that they otherwise would not.”
The suitability of centralised management frameworks was another topic we encountered. Due to the stages of the pandemic varying from one country to another, centralised management frameworks of global corporations have faced some difficult questions of late. Meanwhile decentralised management structures have proven far more agile, adaptable and fluid to the bespoke circumstances of local business environments from region to region.
Crises and times of heightened stress typically accentuate deep rooted board member behaviours, positively and of course, negatively. Board Directors as well as executive teams are challenged in ways which they may not have been before. “As we navigate our way through this pandemic, we are receiving an excellent insight into the strength of our board, and in particular, its cohesiveness and effectiveness” advised the Chair of a prominent Industrial enterprise. The COVID-19 pandemic presents a novel opportunity for Chairmen to reflect and assess board performance. Reflective questions such as the following would appear particularly apt based on our discussions: Was the board under-powered? Was it appropriately balanced? Could the board have functioned better, and if so, how? But more importantly, what actions should now be taken to realise the benefit of these findings?
Culture and Values.
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, a well-known phrase originated by Peter Drucker and made famous by Mark Fields, President at Ford. “All the technology the world over won’t make people rally together and support each other if there isn’t such a culture already in existence.” said the Chief Human Resources Officer of one international FMCG company. While a rapid response is required during a pandemic, it's clear that short-term plans should not take priority over living the company values and doing the right thing. Meanwhile, think of corporate culture as your compass as contingency planning takes place for the second wave which will hopefully never arrive.
“While clear, concise and regular communication has never been so vital in the current business environment, what’s even more crucial is active listening” said the Managing Director of one global Technology company. Organisations must also think through their actions, as these in themselves can convey far more meaning than any words. For instance, communicating the purpose behind decision making can be necessary in times like these to promote confidence and secure commitment, not just now, but later. While there is no doubt that remote working arrangements have unique perks, the social interactions that come with the day to day workplace mean employee social engagement and identity can be lost. Of course, virtual – meetings, coffee’s, lunches, drinks offer some form of substitute, but the question remains are these really enough? For some businesses, what maybe even more concerning are the data protection questions that are raised?
Digitization & Technology.
“While digital readiness had been on our ongoing agenda Pre-COVID, we were simply not near ready enough” admitted one Board member of a significant Consumer Group that we spoke with. For many organisations the pandemic has magnified the importance of technology to a new extreme. As we look forward, multinational corporations, Irish plcs, privately owned companies, commercial semi-states, public sector bodies and not for profit entities will need to commit an even greater level of investment to new technologies as well as digital infrastructure to enable access to new audiences and e-commerce channels.
It is important to remember that until an approved vaccine for COVID-19 is developed or another proven method of nullifying the virus is established, the threat imposed still very much remains. “For this reason, Boards and Leadership teams should re-examine their risk management” said the CEO of one prominent Financial Institution. It is clear that this is not a time for complacency.
While it would be premature to conclude on the long-term leadership perspectives to come out of the ongoing crisis, companies will continue to gradually re-enter the workplace over the coming period. This in itself will pose new questions, the answers to which in themselves will generate new leadership perspectives for us all to consider.
The views of those leaders who we called upon were invaluable. Thank you all.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pat O’Donnell is Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Principal Connections, the Irish office of global executive search group, Agilium Worldwide. Mr O’Donnell is known as a trusted advisor to many of Ireland's most successful boards and leadership teams. A graduate of the National University of Ireland Galway, Mr O’Donnell holds a Master’s Degree in Commercial Law from University College Dublin’s School of Law.
The above article first appeared on Business & Finance in June 2020.
The above information does not purport to be professional advice. Readers are advised to seek independent professional advice before acting on anything contained in these materials.