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COVID-era leadership: Being more human

Chris Taylor
·3 min read

By Chris Taylor

NEW YORK, Feb 23 (Reuters) - Leading when you know where theworld is headed is one thing, but it is something else when thefuture is uncertain.

Corporate executives are facing this challenge in theCOVID-19 era, having to chart a path forward in foggy conditionswithout a map.

As a top headhunter who finds, develops and places thoseleaders, Krishnan Rajagopalan has seen first-hand how managementhas changed at this moment in history.

The president and chief executive of Heidrick & Strugglessat down with Reuters to discuss how leaders can keep theirteams focused, productive and moving forward.

Q: How has leadership changed in the past year?

A: Leaders needed to be agile. That's a key way we assesspeople: Agility means having foresight, adaptability,resilience. That was so important last year, when we allexperienced setback after setback.

But lots of other attributes became critical, too. Those whowere able to embrace building a diverse and inclusiveorganization became very successful. Communication skills becamevery important, because you had to communicate more than youever had to before. And on the personal side, you had to be ableto show some humanity and empathy.

Q: Has this crisis changed what companies are looking for inleaders?

A: What people began to talk to us about was the human sideof leadership. The ability to focus on not just on profits, butpeople.

There was more emphasis on human leaders, who couldcommunicate, and be fair and authentic, and who really believein diversity and inclusion. The bars on those issues were setmuch higher.

Q: Are there any particular CEOs who serve as good rolemodels, for what leaders can be?

A: I really respect (Chief Executive) Satya Nadella atMicrosoft. He focuses on the big picture, he can motivatepeople, and he thinks about the purpose of the company quite abit. He thinks about their place in the community and on theplanet.

Even when they moved to fully remote work, he continued tofocus on company purpose and how to drive that. I like thatconsistency.

Q: You have mentioned the importance of diversity andinclusion, so how do you approach that as a search firm?

A: In 2018, we came out and said that at the board level, wewould present a fully diverse slate on candidates on all ourboard searches.

We have been measuring the diversity of placements acrossour whole system. Last year in the Americas nearly 60% of ourplacements at the board level were diverse, and over 40% of ourplacements overall. We think about this issue on every search.

Q: How do you coach people through Imposter Syndrome, or notfeeling qualified enough to be leaders?

A: Through our consulting business, we've certainly seen anuptick from leaders raising concerns about Imposter Syndrome aspandemic uncertainty continues.

We remind our clients that all of us are operating in a "newnorm" - no one has been through this current situation ofleading through a pandemic. The really good leaders aren'tafraid to acknowledge to their teams that they don't knoweverything, and they are transparent and authentic about that.

Q: Emotionally this era has been hard on employees andleaders alike. What advice do you have for people about pushingthrough?

A: Be mindful of your mental well-being. What applies toemployees, applies to leaders as well. It's OK to be vulnerable,and to show that with your team.

I tell people not to bottle it all up. Communicate,communicate, communicate.

Q: Do you see this pace of change continuing in 2021?

A: It's only going to increase. When you think about it, wewent from largely office-based environments to virtual worlds soincredibly fast. That pace is going to continue, and we're notgoing to return to previous ways of working. The world ischanging, and leaders are changing as well.(Editing by Lauren Young and Richard Chang)