Strategies and technologies aimed at staying innovative have intensified and are now mission-critical for many businesses surviving the coronavirus pandemic. Organizations are leaning more heavily on IT leaders to adopt new tools and ways of doing things, so their companies can maneuver and adapt to economic challenges and shifts in human behaviors.
Digital transformation was well underway at many companies before COVID-19, but the urgency and pace reached new heights starting in April 2020.
“We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months,” said Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella in a company blog post.
“From remote teamwork and learning to sales and customer service, to critical cloud infrastructure and security – we are working alongside customers every day to help them adapt and stay open for business in a world of remote everything.”
To navigate unpredictable periods, companies need to shift their focus to customers and employees, according to R “Ray” Wang, Principal Analyst, Founder, and Chairman of Silicon Valley-based Constellation Research, Inc. In a video conversation with Monica Kumar, SVP of Marketing at Nutanix, Wang described leadership traits that are essential for any organization dealing with uncertainty unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We're living in the world's biggest shared reality experience,” said Wang, referring to lockdowns and work from home mandates sparked by the global impact of COVID-19.
“Almost every trend we know has been accelerated.”
He said that many leaders are acting on fear or momentum because these are very stressful times for everybody.
“The difference between companies and organizations that are going to succeed in this environment is not the technology and it's not the process. It's going to be the quality of leadership.”
Five Leadership Traits
At the beginning of 2017, Wang and his team began writing a paper on responsive and responsible leadership. It was based on a decade of experience working with business leaders and global companies. It aimed to define dynamic leadership during a crisis and how that kind of leadership impacted digital transformation. The report identified core leadership traits that would enable companies to be more responsive to disruption.
“There are some core traits that don't change regardless of the fashion of leadership or whatever cool book pops up on the bestseller list,” Wang said.
His team spotted five traits that are inherent in every quality leader: integrity, inspiration, inclusiveness, authenticity and transparency.
“Transparency is more important now than ever.”
Wang believes that in order for leaders to navigate their organizations through this tsunami of change, they must translate strategy and mission into actionable goals for their employees. They must explain and show how the strategy and mission are critical to the company’s success. Then, leaders must help employees put that understanding into action.
“Help people see their potential and understand why they're an important part of that mission,” he said. “It's up to every leader to personalize that, to understand what motivates their team, and how to get them excited.”
For Wang, it’s essential for leaders to be authentic and walk the talk. Leaders must motivate but also be motivated to act.
“Leading by example is a way of looking at inspiration,” he said.
The number one thing leaders need to do is to make sure they care about people, said Kumar. Since most business meetings now occur via video conferencing, leaders need to become more relatable and less transactional.
“That's when inspiration will follow because people will know that you care about them. Rather than just asking my team like, ‘Hey, have you done these five things?’ I also check in and make sure they know that we are in this together.”
Making people feel included isn’t just about team building or having a common goal, it also provides benefits to the organization, according to Wang. By incorporating multiple viewpoints and diversity into the design process, companies stand to unleash value.
“Think about inclusiveness as diversity and diversity of thought,” he said. “The other piece that's important is thinking about people's styles. Some people are extroverts and they always have a lot to say. But it's also about finding techniques to get input and suggestions for those that are more introverted.”
Inclusion requires actually listening to people’s ideas and perspectives then integrating them into the decision making process. Kumar said this has shown to improve business outcomes, profitability, customer experience, employee retention and more. It builds equality across teams.
“It's all about empowering people and making them feel like they are being heard, that their voice is being taken into account in decision making,” she said.
In unpredictable times filled with many viewpoints and misinformation, Wang thinks authenticity is a critical trait. Leaders need to build trust in order for employees to steer through stormy seas.
Wang said leaders must be honest and play to their own strengths then communicate with transparency. This inspires teams to augment and build around those strengths. This empowers employees to make confident decisions that push through challenges to meet business goals.
“Being able to give everybody the same information helps them to get to that direction,” Wang said. “This helps people figure out how they can be part of the solution.”
Transparency helps set expectations, build competence and make decisions that are for the greater good. But this takes work and the right tools to democratize decision making.
Great Leaders Pivot Between Behavioral Traits
Being responsible and responsive in a pinch is what makes a good leader great, said Wang. That requires the ability to modulate between being responsible and responsive.
“Modulating between being accountable and empathetic is important because it gives you the ability to have a wide range that's needed to balance these foundational attributes,” he said.
Wang said leaders need to know when to make a quick decision based on urgency without falling into the trap of always making decisions that way. There are times when a leader needs to think deeply to find a solution.
“We think about leaders and say, ‘They were decisive, they made quick decisions. It was amazing.’ Sometimes you need that. But other times, we hope our leaders are thoughtful, and they're pensive, and they've really thought through all the issues.”
Stepping back, Wang said effective leaders listen and communicate. They think and act. Sustaining success requires balancing and juggling critical leadership traits.
Brian Carlson is a contributing writer. He is Founder of RoC Consulting and was Editor-in-Chief of CIO.com and EE Times. Follow him on Twitter @bcarlsonDM.
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