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Leadership Skills for the New Normal

By Andy Cleff | Apr 16, 2020 |  Leadership

Leadership Skills that focus on “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools”

A lighthouse which symbolizes the leadership skills that are needed to guide teams during volatile times.

In volatile times like these, leaders can have a tendency to focus heavily on tools and processes. There’s also a danger that they head into micro-command-control mode through a desire to “Stay in the loop.” In doing so, leaders can easily lose the plot: people still matter. 

While no doubt mastering work from home (WFH) technology is important and maintaining communication is vital, a great leader will focus on leadership skills that make sure the teams they serve don’t skew their values too far to the right with regard to “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”

Great Leadership Skills

In our experience, it is vital that leaders help ensure team members are satisfied in their work, are willing to go the extra mile, are passionate about the purpose of their jobs, and are committed to their organization. We share below a few leadership skills that leaders can experiment with towards these outcomes. These ideas apply regardless of geography–100% distributed through 100% collocated– and they are especially important during times of great volatility.

An initial word of caution: don’t overdo it. There’s plenty of change happening already that’s outside of anyone’s sphere of influence and control. Don’t pile on much more too quickly. Small experiments. Rinse and repeat.

Connect

For a sapien’s brain, the new normal of social distancing can also mean social isolation. For the introverts and hermits at heart, this may be welcome; however, for the extroverts in the crew, the need for human connection should not be ignored. Either way, there’s 50,000 years of evolutionary brain chemistry driving each of us. 

One of the simplest ways to connect is via a check-in at the beginning of each interaction. A simple and sincere, “How are you doing?” 

This applies to 1-on-1’s, as well as group discussions. This is not intended to elicit a status report: “yesterday, today, in my way.” Make it clear that we aren’t going to try to solve any issues then and there. Instead the check-in is a way to acknowledge that we bring our whole selves to work: emotions, thoughts, distractions, physical states, and more.

Ask, and then leave room for an answer, and yes, allow room for silence no matter how awkward. 

Appreciate

All of us need to regularly have the experience that what we do matters, that it is valuable and that our presence makes a difference to others. While each of us has our own preferences when it comes to modes of appreciation and the specific actions that uniquely encourage us, simple words of affirmation — particularly in challenging times — have a huge impact when spoken by a leader.

Props, kudos, shoutouts, whatever you like to call ‘em – expressing your appreciation, regard, recognition, and encouragement to a team member for something they’ve done is a free, easy and powerful tool. It’s also not just for leaders to use, but for each team member as well. 

It takes under 5 seconds. What the person has done doesn’t have to be a huge thing. In fact, it could be one of those tiny, everyday occurrences that made a difference to how the day, or even the past hour, went. For you, for the team, and for your customers.

Nurture Resilience

A leader helps the individuals and teams they serve to stay strong by having the ability to be flexible, supple and able to endure strain without being permanently injured, i.e., by helping them be resilient. Making sure there’s a reservoir to draw upon during difficult conditions is vital.

Daryl Conner provides a set of lenses to view the building blocks of resilience:

  • Positivity: seeing possibilities in even the most discouraging of situations
  • Focus: knowing what’s important, and having a clear sense of priorities
  • Flexibility: in the midst of ambiguity, complexity, and chaos, the ability to generate a wide range of options and ideas
  • Organization: building plans, creating systems and structures to work effectively, and use their energy efficiently
  • Proactivity: ability to carry out experiments with less than complete information

Conner writes, “Balance among these characteristics is important. Each of them plays a role in adapting to change. Each situation calls for its own mix of these ‘change muscles.’ It’s possible to overuse or underuse any of them, so the best strategy is to build strength across the board, so you can call on whichever element is most necessary to address the challenges you face in the moment.”

At Agile Velocity we like to add one more thing to the above: Playtime.  As Roald Dahl wrote, “A little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest [wo]men.” Add some silliness into the week: improv, ugly mug mornings, silly hat time, dog/cat photo sharing slack channels, and the occasional virtual happy hours. 

Revisit Team Agreements

When’s the last time leadership and teams reviewed their working agreements to ensure expectations are aligned? 

  • Now that everyone is working from home…are they also living at work? What are each person’s constraints and “working time”  (e.g, kids at home and need attention….). When are we off the clock?
  • What team and/or organization values need to be emphasized? (e.g., Humor, Honesty, Transparency) 
  • How will the team make the most of the vast array of asynchronous communications channels they have at their disposal. What’s primary? 
  • What are expected response time SLA’s?  
  • What are the back channels when the primary tech hangs or fails? 

Meetings, Meetings, Meetings 

The need for meetings, where everyone can connect, learn, educate, share, collaborate, and inspire, has always been present. In the best of times, having great meetings takes practice and skill. Following are some ways leaders can help their teams improve the value of meeting time.

Check In’s / Warm Up

Check in with each other at the start of each and every meeting. (See “Connect” above.) Experiment with other variations, for example, the weather report format (sunny, cloudy, scattered showers, raining cats and dogs, etc.), borrowed from the classic retrospective “set the stage” activity. 

Maybe introduce a little bit of improv to help everyone disconnect from whatever they were doing prior to joining the current meeting and move into a new collaborative headspace. “Fortunately/Unfortunately” and “First Word/Last Word” talking games, direct from improv, are fun and lightweight.

What Kind of Meeting is This?

An obvious, and often neglected need, is upfront clarity on meeting type, context, and goal.  Kim Scott in Radical Candor provides a nice framework:

  • All-Hands Meeting – An information sharing session for the entire organization
  • Staff Meeting – Used to review metrics, provide team level updates, and identify (but not make) key decisions
  • “Big Debate” Meetings – Where the team is debating, but not deciding.
  • “Big Decision” Meetings – Push decisions into the facts, pull facts into the decisions, set in motion activities to prove or disprove a hypothesis
  • Think Time – Time to reflect and collaborate as a team
  • 1:1 Conversations –  Time for effective personal growth, feedback wraps, pivotal conversations
  • Meeting-Free Zones  – Blocked out time that can’t be scheduled by others. A coach can also remind team members there’s great value controlling their calendar

Role Clarity

Great leaders coach teams to ensure role clarity during meetings:

  • Is everyone who needs to be “here” actually be there? 
  • Who’s facilitating the meeting? 
  • Who’s taking which topic? 
  • Who’s the scribe taking notes? 
  • Who’s the timekeeper? 
  • Who owns each action item produced?

Inspect and Adapt – Even More Frequently During Stressful Times

How good was that meeting? A simple way to find out: Reserve 2-5 minutes at the end of every meeting to get feedback by asking “What was the return on time invested (ROTI) in this? On the count of three, everyone votes with their fingers: 5=best ever. 1=we couldn’t have done worse if we tried.” 

Turn fist to five into the “perfection game” – everyone provides one improvement idea for each finger shy of 5. 

Imagine the compound interest growth that will come from implementing these crowd-sourced, incremental changes!

Check Out’s

Don’t just rush out the door, virtual or otherwise. Close all interactions with intention. Ensure clarity on the action steps and timing for follow-ups. Bookending meetings with appreciations won’t hurt. For more on check-ins and check outs, see: https://kasperowski.com/checking-in-and-out/

Welcome Surprises

Cafes and coffee shops have gone “Take out only.” All of us will be working from home for the rest of the month, at least. Dogs will bark. Cats will type. Kids and domestic partners will wander past in the background.  Be forgiving. Smile. Wave. We’ll all do the same for you!

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