As a working mum of three, I’m certainly not going to open up debate about the American country singer Dolly Parton’s take on feminism, but she is certainly an icon and renowned for female-empowering hits, such as “9 to 5” and "Jolene". I’ve always had a fulltime career, been motivated by work, lapped up long hours, juggled homelife responsibilities, negotiated duties with my other half on the hoof, and somehow, overall, made it work. Or, as Dolly says, always jumped out of bed ‘full of ambition’, with long lists of work ‘to dos’ and home ‘to dos’ as my constant companion and eight hours of sleep a night long evading me.
After I became a Mum, it took me many years to be OK to admit that whilst I adore my kids, I get huge intrinsic satisfaction from my work. Before 2020, I’d often sit on the southbound train from my company’s Leeds head office or from a far-flung client location, letting the waves of guilt wash over me. Sometimes these were little ‘first world’ guilt trips: ‘I wish I’d been able to put the kids to bed’, ‘I hope my husband managed to wrestle their hair into ballet buns’ or ‘I missed the deadline to pay for the school trip’. Sometimes they were massive guilt trips, like the time I was running a client conference, oblivious to the ten missed calls on my work and personal phones, whilst my middle daughter was rushed into A&E.
It’s actually already quite hard to remember those commuting days. Home working has become the new normal working life. It’s been forced on many of us by necessity, the pandemic having turned many of our organisations virtual and remote overnight. And now we are moving to ‘agile working’, even our public sector clients who have huge commitment to deliver frontline services. Future workforce modelling is now the norm, with us making assumptions about future working patterns, technological alternatives, attendance rates and office space requirements.
Amidst this, I feel fortunate to work for a company that had allowed home working and discouraged ‘presenteeism’ even before the pandemic hit. GS has invested in its people right throughout the crisis, everything from mental health workshops at our Monday ‘all hands calls’, to encouraging parents to work flexibly so they could attend to home school commitments, to paying for a qualified teacher to run the GS Mini Academy for primary schooling sessions during lockdown.
We can’t rest on our laurels as leaders though can we? 2020 threw up some unprecedented challenges, certainly some that I’d never come across in my 25+ years of working life or decades of advising clients on talent issues. Last year there were several times that my boss and I would say to each other ‘I’ve never had to deal with this before’ and I personally, I haven’t said those words for years.
I’ve been reflecting on my learnings from the last 12 months and my ‘Covid Keeps’. Hideous as the last year has been at times, at home it’s also afforded me more time with the kids, more visibility of what they do at school, more time for exercise, less wasted time commuting, more confidence I can meet the requirements of my voluntary board commitments. And at work, we’ve proven we can adapt our practices too - to onboard new hires, welcome and embed them in the team and move them to high performance quickly. At GS for example, we’ve proven that we can take all of our board development and leadership programmes to virtual online learning and improve participant evaluation ratings and proven that spotting the mess behind a new client in their makeshift office bedroom only serves to fast-track rapport building and trust.
As we move forward, we must continue to be comfortable learning and adapting. We need to lead differently to lead an agile workforce well. We’ll need to learn new ways of leading and indeed understanding and developing leadership skills is one of the factors that differentiates highly effective people from those that just plod along in their careers and lives.
Agile working is going to place increased emphasis on leadership consistency, both treating people consistently and having consistent expectations of them. Employees obviously enjoy consistency because they feel as though they will be treated in the same way as others are treated, creating a work climate where fairness is valued and trust is developed. This, in turn, enhances employee engagement and ultimately increases productivity, profitability and reduces attrition.
Managers need to be more consistent than ever in an agile culture where personalised work choices are more highly valued and the rules about ‘acceptable’ work patterns are fewer. Never has leadership judgement been more important. How one manager deals with an employee who asks ‘Is it Ok for me to be out of office today? I’ve not got much on but am absolutely stacked and working long hours for the rest of the week’ will set the tone for how we (and our peers who are leading in other areas of the organisation) will be expected to deal with the next query that crops up.
Our answer will also set the tone for that employee’s motivation. This conundrum is even trickier given hat different people are motivated by different things. At work, some people, though relatively few, are motivated by money. Far more are motivated by achievement, recognition and responsibility. In agile work environments, those leadership skills around getting to the bottom of what motivates each and every person through excellent communication and perception, as well as empathy, are paramount.
There has been much debate about whether leaders are naturals or if it is possible to learn new leadership skills. In fact, no one is a born leader. We all learn & develop our leadership behaviours and skills to varying levels from the time we are very young. Leadership judgement is a different matter and is one of the hardest things to learn, but even so, our research shows that this too, can be developed positively over time. Certainly the given is that being willing to embrace new personal leadership learning for the future will be a key differentiator of leadership success.
Jody Goldsworthy, Executive Director, Leadership & Talent Consultancy