It may have been an internet sensation, and Jackie Weaver might be the new cover girl on T-shirts and tote bags everywhere, but the Feb 2021 Cheshire East Parish Council meeting that descended into chaos and vitriol highlighted everything that’s wrong with old school leadership in business
While most of us tittered at the behaviour of the Handforth Parish Counsellors, Cheshire Association of Local Councils representative Jackie Weaver stepped in to control the shouts, name-calling and generally inappropriate behaviour by ejecting members from the meeting with the click of her mouse, but this fly on the wall look at councils in action highlights why bad culture is the kiss of death to a business.
Now it’s easy to sit back and consider of our own companies, maybe bigger and more sophisticated than this small parish council and think, that’d never happened to you, your organisation’s leadership would never slip to such behaviour, but think again as you glance through this roll call of some poor examples of organisational culture and leadership that were perhaps less overt, but still as lacking, through 2020/21.
Let’s start with American giant Whole Food, which suggested through the pandemic that staff could help other staff who needed extra sick days, by giving some of their own paid time off to their colleagues. Rather than Whole Foods putting their own hand in their billion-dollar pocket, this subsidiary of Amazon decided to put the imperative, and the guilt trip, back on their employees.
Still on the Amazon group, at the beginning of the pandemic workers at Amazon’s Staten Island, New York fulfilment centre walked out because of the company’s response to COVID-19 infections among its warehouse employees. Amazon had confirmed just one case of COVID-19, but workers reported many more and that the company has failed to properly clean the warehouse. What message does a company send to an employee if the basics of occupational health and safety are ignored, particularly now?
Then there was Adidas CEO who, in the face of a growing Coronavirus crisis, rather than closing retail stores, his leaked internal memo to staff told them they ‘required courage, persistence, and focus,’ and would keep the stores open. He later reneged, but another email advised that “we expect the leadership teams to be working from our offices on a daily basis.” Nothing says profits before people like a return-to-work order in lockdown.
On May 5, Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s chief executive, cried into his video camera at an all-staff meeting. Reading from a script he declared “I have a deep feeling of love for all of you, what we are about is belonging, and at the centre of belonging is love.” Within a few hours, 1,900 employees were told they were out. A tearful CEO won’t mask balancing the companies’ books with employees’ livelihoods.
Now, this is not a beat up on companies that made slipups in the unprecedented days of the pandemic. But frankly, none of the above is about the unprecedented nature of the pandemic. Yes, that’s undeniably a factor, but it’s also an easy out for what are just examples of failure of leadership.
Now more than ever, the need for good leadership is paramount. We still have some time before we return to a more recognisable world, the long-term effects will undoubtedly linger.
Consider too some of the related and residual issues that we’ve dealt with outside of a global pandemic in the past six months or so. Britain’s economy has endured a difficult start to 2021, hit with another lockdown and the disruption caused by the country’s reduced relationship with the EU and the whole Brexit situation.
There are still 700,000 people less on UK company payroll than pre-pandemic times, and economic uncertainty throughout the world is rife. The political landscape is one of constant disruption throughout the world, whilst the news has been peppered with stories of cyber-terrorism on everything from media companies to presidential elections.
In conjunction with these challenges, fundamental transformations are taking place, in the shape of Industry 4.0. Technologies from big data to artificial intelligence continue to propagate. Consumer buying trends have changed markedly in the last year. Retail sales have shifted online. Consumers are buying differently, using different channels, with increasing expectations around customer service and speed of transaction and delivery.
Put all these together and you have a breadth of change that is staggering.
So how can leaders respond to such volatility and uncertainty? What qualities do they need to ensure they get or stay ahead?
In such challenging conditions, it can feel like you are constantly firefighting just to keep your organisation afloat. In environments experiencing an immediate challenge, it can be hard to look ahead to the future, harder still to plan ahead, but those fires you’re putting out will only gain intensity unless you can find a way to skill up your managers and leaders.
Jackie Weaver put her fires out with the click of a mouse button, but clearly, that’s not the end of the Handforth Parish Council story. Their leadership needs to fundamentally change and maybe, yours does too.
Here are our tips to help you on leadership attributes for the future.
Managing for today and for tomorrow
- Build the right system – our behaviours tend to be shaped by the environment we find ourselves in, and nowhere is this more evident at work than in the performance management process. When your promotions and bonuses are dependent upon a good review, then it’s perhaps no surprise that people perform to their KPIs. So, if you want better innovation, make sure innovation is part of people’s KPIs.
- Develop a dual operating system – there is no end to stories highlighting the challenges of maintaining your profit engine whilst also exploring new growth areas. Whether it’s political obstacles to overcome, providing adequate resourcing, time, or finances, these are challenges the modern leader needs to tackle head-on.
- Eat a constant diet of feedback – developing an environment where your staff feel empowered to speak up, where they feel secure enough to try (and fail), and where your organisation is constantly learning helps you to become the kind of agile, sense and respond organisation needed to cope with our changing times.
Being the change you want to see
- A strong moral compass – in any time of extreme change you will have to make difficult and challenging decisions. Dealing with difficult situations is one of the most challenging, but currently, the most frequent issues for leaders. If you can’t deal with difficult situations using good leadership techniques, invest in some leadership coaching
- Embracing change – you need to show that you personally embrace the kind of changes you wish to see in your employees. Your employees need you to be the beacon of adaptability, and what got you to the top is no longer good enough.
- Comfortable with technology – technology is a constant, hugely powerful driver of change, and industry 4.0 has well and truly arrived, so you will need to be comfortable with it in various forms. Reverse mentoring can be a great way for you to learn from the smart people throughout your organisation, whilst also showing you are open to ideas from wherever they may originate.
A builder of bridges, not walls
- Supporting collaboration – adapting to change will require you to ensure the entire organisation works effectively together. Silos are therefore no longer fit for purpose, and you will need to ensure they don’t stifle the flow of knowledge throughout your organisation.
- Open to the world – an increasing number of innovations take what works somewhere else and tweak it to fresh circumstances. Therefore, to be innovative you need to be the centre of a wide ecosystem of start-ups, academics, government agencies, even competitors. Accept that you’re not the smartest person in the room, but that the smartest person probably isn’t even in the room.
- Diversity of thought – Researchers such as Scott Page have long trumpeted the virtues of thought diversity in any organisation, and your job will be to foster that. Whilst the goal itself should be united one within your team, your means of achieving that goal are much more malleable.
Made of the right stuff
- Accepting ambiguity – when Philip Tetlock undertook his famous experiments into the best forecasters in the world, a tolerance for ambiguity was common across the best of the best. In such a complex world there’s no such thing as certainty, so coming to terms with probability and ambiguity will be key.
- Showing resilience – it’s become a bit cliche to say that failure is an inevitability when you innovate, but it is undoubtedly true. Whenever change is attempted, you will suffer setbacks, and so you will need to be strong enough to absorb the setbacks, whilst also learning from each new experience.
A lover of technology
- Driving change – technological capabilities were mentioned previously, but they are so important in driving change that they need to be mentioned again. Whatever changes you are undertaking, digital technologies are likely to play a part, so having a degree of technical understanding will be crucial.
- Utilising data – big data is something of a catch-all term that can veer towards meaninglessness, but if you utilise data effectively it can significantly enhance your decision making, both as an individual and as an organisation.
Can We Help You?
We are experts in organisational culture, leadership, and human behaviour change; a team of practitioner consultants who all believe in the impact people and culture have on business performance. We have a wealth of business leadership experience which ensures we bring you thought leadership and tangible action which will fuel your business results. We’re business results led; people engagement focused.
Our methodology has been developed from the ground up, based on real business experience and understanding of what does and doesn’t work when it comes to the impact people have on business. Not all culture alignment requires the same solutions; our flexible approach underpinned by our proven methodology assures you of designing and embedding a culture that supports the delivery of your business strategy or organisation transformation.
Ready to Future Proof Your Leadership?
If we can assist you with any of your leadership challenges or management development needs, talk to us about our range of flexible solutions at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call +44 (0) 208 088 2228.