Key traits of a good leader in the time of COVID-19

By Robert Half on 14 September 2020

With COVID-19 likely to continue to disrupt lives and businesses for a long time, companies are looking for leaders who excel in the technical, strategic and interpersonal skills needed to guide their teams through the current crisis.

The CFO and CIO roles have become especially critical as companies focus on short-to-medium term financial stability and the rapid transition to mass-scale remote working. So, what are the key traits of a good leader during this period of disruption and change? And with many companies going through top-level personnel changes as they tackle the Coronavirus crisis, how could your leadership style evolve to meet the demands of the next ‘new normal’??

The need to be agile

During turbulent times, meaningful change can occur only if people are able to share ideas and resources. Many companies are discovering the value of cross-functional, agile teams that focus on delivering the best outcomes. With the rise of e-commerce and quickened pace of digitisation during the pandemic, CIOs, for example, need to be trusted partners who can drive strategic initiatives, not just operational managers who purchase and maintain IT infrastructure.

Working-from-home, in particular, has demonstrated the value of getting ahead of technical issues before they occur, such as poor connectivity, data security issues and/or unstable videoconferencing tools. CIOs should be able to advise the CFO and CEO on the best ways to work remotely before each department tries its own approach. They must also be well-versed in the emerging cyber-threats associated with working from home, and how employees can help mitigate them through the appropriate sharing and handling of sensitive information.

An effective technology leader also understands that technology is simply an enabler, and that new ways of working require a change to workplace culture. Both CIOs and CFOs will need to be open to learning new approaches to where, how and when people work, collaborate and interact, and be ready to communicate and foster best practices across their businesses to ensure staff remain engaged, productive and feel valued.

Making the best use of resources

With many companies seeing sharp drops in revenue, financial leaders play a central role in keeping the business stable and ensuring it’s positioned to thrive when markets improve.

CFOs must be able to work closely with the executive team to decide which parts of the business are most essential for revenue generation and business continuity, and which parts are less strategic or less relevant with social distancing in place. It’s also crucial that they can develop financial forecasts based on various best- to worst-case pandemic outcomes.

A good leader also understands the importance of transparency. CFOs should be able to play a role in guiding internal and external communications which offer timely and accurate company updates to those who need them, including employees, partners, and investors.

Communication and empathy are key to building resilience

As companies and clients adapt to a fast-moving and unfamiliar business environment, executives will need to be able to lead with empathy and communicate a clear vision through what will be a period of heightened anxiety for many employees. With quarantines and social distancing, employees are likely to crave a sense of connection, often while also balancing work pressures with family responsibilities.

CIOs will need to be flexible and creative in their approach to managing a workforce of both on-site and remote employees – many of whom are expected to continue working remotely on at least a part-time basis for the foreseeable future. They will need to ensure that remote employees and their managers get the tools, processes and guidance they need to do their jobs effectively.

Along with other C-suite leaders, CIOs must show they can succeed in helping employees stay engaged and connected, as this will have significant impact on loyalty and retention. This should involve seeking direct feedback from remote employees to understand the pressures and limitations they are facing each day, via surveys or one-to-one video calls. Some questions a good leader might ask include:

  • Which aspects of remote working are most enjoyable and productive? Which are the most draining?
  • What do you think would help you or the team improve daily communication?
  • What has communication been like with managers and team leaders?
  • Which skills do you think would be most valuable to learn to enable you to work more effectively?

Gathering feedback from all areas of the business and from all types of employees is key to giving employees a sense of belonging and ownership. Furthermore, it ensures they feel supported as they transition into what until recently were unfamiliar ways of working.

Getting the right leaders on board

The shift to remote and home-based working has further globalised the talent and recruitment function as companies make the switch to online interviews and digital onboarding processes. This has also resulted in more organisations recruiting C-suite talent in different countries and regions, which is helping to drive greater diversity across different leadership roles.

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