In March last year – as the Covid-19 crisis gained momentum – I wrote in Legal Business that if you are a leader in an emergency, you have to act like one. I added that as a leader, you are also the chief communicator.
Speaking to executives over the past few months, it’s remarkable how acting as a manager means adjusting your style as this crisis continues. A more accessible, informal, and open approach that connects more personally with their employees has become key.
A managing partner of a London-based law firm told me how he had shared his love for his garden shed and everything in it with partners and staff. He discovered that people reacted surprisingly well to his sharing part of his personal life with them. Messages flooded his inbox, responding to his happy, down-to-earth shed stories, creating a real sense of emotional engagement.
Share shed stories may sound trivial, but it had a huge impact on the company and him. He made it possible for people to connect with him and hear from them directly. He shortened the levels of management that normally blur the connection between executives and leaders. It became a source of strength for him. People are more willing to join in with you when they feel like they are connected to you.
Another senior partner at a global law firm explained how he started publishing a regular blog talking about the pressures in his own life during the lockdown and the challenges facing the firm as a whole. “I have received hundreds of heartfelt messages from people who have replied to my blogs and replied to each of them personally. It helped create a sense of connectedness, ”he told me. He better understood people’s real concerns and felt able to make better decisions.
A senior executive at a large global professional services company said she missed the ability to sense the mood in the office – the mood or morale of their employees – when everyone is working from home. She said she randomly called staff to see how they were doing. She soon found out that she was terrifying some people. They thought a phone call from her could only mean one thing – discharge. But she persevered. Word got around and the conversations became more pleasant. She enjoyed the interaction and the ability to hear straight from the workshop.
So what’s going on here?
Those who dismiss this openness as a “sensitive” confection that interferes with the “real work” of leadership are overlooking an essential point. During this crisis, many people have felt genuinely and understandably scared on a deeply personal level. They want to feel that their leaders understand their worries and fears. They want the assurance that they are not alone with these feelings.
At the same time, there is a welcome trend towards increasing openness to mental health problems. For example, Linklaters senior partner Charlie Jacobs was reported last year that he shared with employees that he experienced a “mood dip” during the lockdown and what he did to deal with it.
Of course, this is not meant to imply excessive sharing, extravagant expressions of emotions, or handshakes. Nobody wants to be led by someone who is self-possessed or “woe to me”.
First and foremost, they want someone they trust to provide an honest and transparent assessment of the situation and the direction of travel. Neither Cassandra nor Pollyanna. You want to feel like the tiller has a steady hand. However, executives who can combine this with a really personal touch find it easier to instill loyalty and trust and bring people with them.
The best leaders have demonstrated an almost chameleon-like ability to adapt their style to the different stages of an unfolding crisis. In the initial phase, the consensual leadership model that is more or less familiar in most law firms had to be abandoned. Executives needed trust to make timely and effective decisions. The crisis allowed measures – actually required – that would normally be difficult, if not impossible. The priority was to stabilize the ship. It’s not good to be empathetic when business is shaken.
But as the crisis turned into a long crisis, the best leaders changed their styles again. They realized that they had to react sensitively to the change in the balance of power in the company. The inevitable damage from the earlier phase had to be repaired. It was knowing when to be determined and when to be empathetic. When to use power and when to be more accommodating.
These nuanced judgments are particularly challenging as no one can predict how long this crisis will last. It is all the more important to accelerate yourself – to realize that you are dealing with the problem day in and day out, long after the situation has used up your initial adrenaline rush.
When Dewey & LeBoeuf Chairman Mort Pierce said, “Management is not my passion,” shortly before the firm went bankrupt in 2012, he summed up an attitude of aversion to leadership and management in law firms past the epoch.
If this crisis has shown anything, it has shown that the best run businesses thrive and the badly run businesses have suffered. Smart companies are already investing in leadership skills and preparing their future managers for the responsibility of leadership. In this way you secure a sustainable competitive advantage over those who do not take leadership seriously.
Episode 1 of the new podcast series by Professor Laura Empson and David Morley: Empson & Morley – Leading Professional People is released today.
The series brings together Laura’s decades of academic research into professional leadership and David’s hands-on experience as head of a global law firm to investigate critical leadership issues for professional association executives. For example, how to lead the current crisis and maintain a culture of collaboration when working remotely.
Laura and David discusses these and many more topics with executives from some of the world’s most successful professional associations such as McKinsey, KPMG, and Allen & Overy.