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The Leadership Conundrum in the ‘Present’ Normal

By Ankit Agarwala

Leaders must look to elevate their organisation and employees to the next frontier of resilience, in order to not just survive, but thrive

The tide has turned, and we have entered the new year in the global business landscape with a sharp focus on productivity, cost optimization, and profitability. There are no freebies, and the flavour of the season is that businesses and their employees really need to toil hard for their results. India is better placed than most other economies at the moment and clearly in the driving seat, but global headwinds have started to have some impact both on the ground, and in the sentiments.

If you are an experienced leader, you have probably seen such business environments before. Many pre-pandemic years resembled this – cautious investments, selective and though-out hiring, bottom line focus and a strong focus on performance. However, the workforce has gone through a fairly savage experience in the last 3 years, and some habits will take time to wear off, and might never do. 

Ideally, as leader of a business, you would want your employees to get a pulse of the situation pretty quickly. For many though, this is proving to be much harder than expected. How do you build a highly motivated and engaged team of people when many prefer as little time in the office as possible? Strong nudges from leaders to have more time in office are often seen as infringing the principles and the newfound ‘right to’ flexibility. 

How do you get your employees to stretch themselves and put in the extra effort when the ‘right to’ wellbeing is often resisting this. It’s another matter how much effort the individual has made towards their wellbeing, but there seems to have been an unsaid shift of responsibility from the person to the organization. Clearly, if pre-pandemic you were a leader navigating your business through the occasional dangers of the Savannah, now it seems much more like the thick Amazon jungle, with danger lurking at every step.

Striking a fine balance

An optimal balance of supporting and challenging your employees has become critical now, along with a habit and comfort of providing honest, candid, and caring feedback. The margin for error on this is much lesser than before. While having a more supportive approach was a pretty alien skill for many leaders at the start of the pandemic, many are erring on the other side of the spectrum now and find it difficult to be demanding. News of recent layoffs has been a dose of coffee for many to wake up to the realities of the present, but plenty of employees, especially the more inexperienced ones, are still in slumber and need to be shaken out of it.

What do we do with the flexibility ‘beast’ then? There is no denying the benefits and power of flexibility and autonomy, and there is clear evidence that for those with a strong work ethic, these elements are uplifting and strongly improve performance and longevity. The tricky ones are the ‘on the fence’ employees, though – well-intentioned individuals with low to moderate ambition, but not quite willing to walk through a wall for their leader or organisation yet. It is here that the need to lay down what the organisation strongly stands for becomes essential. Once the purpose and values are communicated regularly and also positively recognized and reinforced, there is a much better chance the flexibility will be an enabler rather than a hindrance. 

For instance, if meeting clientele face to face and building relationships is clearly laid out as an organisational principle, then flexibility can be woven by an individual basis their preferences but knowing what is a non-negotiable. Similarly, if a weekly team meeting with everyone attending in person where the previous week’s successes and challenges can be shared is part of the value system, it is easier for employees and supervisors to work to a flexible schedule knowing the commitments they need to keep in mind. 

Ultimately though, leaders need to be comfortable with and encourage an output and results driven culture. Flexibility can be a real enabler as long as team level and customer focused ‘anchors’ are laid down clearly. What is often underestimated today is the criticality of rapid skill enhancement to succeed in a flexible and hybrid environment – both for leaders and the larger employee pool. There is a genuine need to fast track learning, both technical and leadership or soft skill related, at a pace far greater than pre-pandemic years.

How do you know as a leader whether an employee unable to cope with difficult or demanding circumstances and pinning it on health and lack of wellbeing is genuine, or just demonstrating a lack of resilience? The giveaway is usually in the attitude. Mental health concerns are real in the demanding lifestyle of today, however with those committed towards the organisation and genuinely under distress, you will still see an honest commitment to do the best possible under their circumstances. With those simply unable to handle the pressure, the frequency of blaming external events and individuals will be high. The key is for performance standards and wellbeing of employees to be looked at independently and in parallel, and not as a substitute for each other.

Working with an ever-improving skill level, clear knowledge of organisational values and purpose, and a high degree of flexibility and autonomy with trust demonstrated from the supervisor is potent mix that would give maximum chances of individual and organisational success in the complex business landscape of today.

Ankit Agarwala is the Managing Director of Michael Page in India. Having joined the organization as a Consultant in Singapore 13 years back after a number of years as a banking professional, he has worked across various locations and set up or grown a number of industry and functional practices in the country which have helped make Page the leading search and recruitment organization in the country. 

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