As an organization committed to and focused on helping our clients develop their leaders, Oliver Group recently launched a survey to gather information on the role leaders have played during the COVID-19 pandemic. We targeted more than 2,200 leaders across the US from a diverse range of industries and company sizes in an effort to better understand the connection between how the organization fared and the role their leaders played in delivering that outcome. Further, we were interested to explore exactly what areas of focus garnered the most attention from leadership during the early phase of the pandemic; and how decisions made during recent months might impact company success heading into 2021 and beyond. While a full report is still being compiled, and will be made generally available in the coming weeks, this article focuses on the most pronounced themes drawn from the survey.
In general terms, survey respondents indicated a high degree of success with handling the shifting priorities and pronounced needs of their employees, as Figure 1 notes. A stronger challenge emerged around how to best communicate and hold employees accountable for rapidly changing priorities. The greatest improvement opportunity appeared to be centered on better “two-way”, or collaborative, communication to ensure employees felt included—that their feedback was actively sought out and heard. Further, that such communication was specific to employees’ job performance, providing critical feedback around how they were actually performing on the job.
The graph in Figure 2 provides more nuance around this theme. In particular, less than half of the respondents actively involved their teams in COVID decision-making, suggesting that communication was more “uni-directional”—leaders were simply telling employees what the organization was going to do and what their role in the revised strategy would be. This is important when we consider the role of employee engagement: to what extent did the events surrounding the pandemic demotivate, or disengage, employees?
Clearly this would have been acerbated for organizations that suffered layoffs or furloughs. But even in organizations that weathered the initial storm well, the risk of disengagement was heightened due to the health risks, daily battering of news stories and the subsequent unrest that COVID unleashed (or helped unleash). The near-term consequence of involving employees may have been outweighed by near-term necessity, but it has created a potentially far-reaching consequence to how organizations will continue to navigate the COVID landscape and pivot their strategy for 2021.
Similarly, the lowest rating (24%) on the entire survey related to providing “useful and timely feedback” to employees regarding their job performance. This further suggests the unidirectional nature of the communication, and offers that employee job performance may have been severely disconnected from the near-term goals of the organization. How else to explain why performance feedback would be unsolicited? Leaders were busy telling their teams what to do and being caught up in the constant swirl of changes—and challenges—that characterized the early phase. While this is understandable, as with our earlier discussion, the long-term consequences of not providing specific feedback around employee performance are catastrophic. Leaders risk a disengaged employee base and miss opportunities for the right kind of employee development that supports both individual and organizational growth. The best leaders are “people developers”; their number one priority is the development of their direct reports. The most effective way to do this is to conscientiously and routinely solicit employee feedback and use it constructively to help develop the individual.
Another key data set (figure 3) further suggested leaders were largely myopic around idea generation: leaders struggled to look outside their own silos and consider business objectives from a more holistic standpoint. When coupled with their unwillingness to fully solicit employee feedback, the picture that emerges is one of leaders largely disconnected from broader channels of data—making decisions in relative isolation (which, given the circumstances, is an all too apropos outcome perhaps).
Importantly, following the collection of the survey data, Oliver Group hosted a roundtable discussion focused on the survey results and inviting discussion around key themes from the report. One of the learnings to emerge from the session was ensure that people form the central focus of the organization’s mission, vision and values. When organizations are people-centric, the risk of internal disconnection is lessened. Further, organization must have a “people plan” that ties to their business plan. Strategic goals are ultimately executed by employees; ensuring that employees are considered in the context of the business’s goals ensures that communication is a priority and centers leaders on their core activity: leading!
The survey, and the discussion of the data, provided many additional insights. This all-to-brief overview is meant to serve as merely an appetizer for the meal to come. While there is little that may be said in a positive light around the introduction of the virus, it did throw the act of leading into sharp relief. Leaders were put on the spot. In many respects, then, the pandemic resembled a stress test for organizational and leadership health. The feedback gathered during the pandemic, while certainly not proportional to the cost, needs to be fully considered in order to ensure some level of constructive outcome from the price already paid; and to ensure, as COVID restrictions continue, that lessons learned assist in providing organizations—and their leaders—with keys to successfully navigating these challenges.