The changes in the business landscape since March 2020 present an opportunity for organisations to create a more inclusive, innovative culture, in which all their employees are engaged. But in order to take advantage of this unique window in time, leaders need to utilise particular skillsets.
As part of our 2021 Women in Business report, Grant Thornton asked the senior management of mid-market firms which leadership traits would be required in a world reshaped by the pandemic to ensure success in 2021 and beyond. Unsurprisingly, being adaptive to change is the top choice, followed by the ability to innovate and be collaborative across the business.
A new breed of manager
A core attribute has also emerged that hasn’t previously featured in the Women in Business research: more than a fifth of respondents feel empathy is a vital characteristic for today’s leaders. The ability to connect with and understand different perspectives has come to the fore during the recent crisis.
“COVID has changed the relationship between employers and employees, between managers and their people. Those leaders who are empathetic, who have leant in, have connected with people differently,” says Kim Schmidt, global leader – leadership, people and culture, at Grant Thornton International.
Attributes such as empathy have traditionally been associated with female leaders, whether accurately or not.
“Being an empathetic leader is about how you listen and act. Everyone has that quality within them, but for various reasons, women may be perceived to have had more practice,” says Joy Taylor, national managing partner – operational and organizational transformation, at Grant Thornton US. “Empathetic leaders aren’t demanding; they welcome their colleagues and teams to join them on the journey.”
In the post-pandemic world, empathetic leaders will be the ones who get the most out of their teams. “You need to have an environment and culture where your people feel safe to speak up, ask questions, challenge the status quo, and where leaders and those responsible for leading teams show up every single day and live the core tenets of D&I,” says Kim Schmidt.
Winning hearts and minds
Organisations that recognise this shift, and encourage empathy in leadership, will be better positioned to attract and retain talent, believes Anna Johnson, CEO of Grant Thornton Sweden. “As people become more purpose-driven in their work, they want to see an employer who shares their priorities. People are thinking, ‘Do I have the same values as the company that I work for? Is what I’m doing at work every day valued by me?’”
Grant Thornton’s research indicates that softer skillsets will characterise management styles in the new normal. “We are talking about diversity, we are talking about inclusion and we are talking about a new style of leadership that has become evident during this crisis,” says Ramón Galcerán, CEO of Grant Thornton Spain. “A leadership style that responds to the current situation, and to the future situation.
“It is a more social, empathetic, communicative leadership, where the leader is the person who makes things happen; to do so is inclusive and creates a collaborative environment where people feel safe to contribute ideas.”
With COVID-19 driving change in the perception of what should characterise a leader, businesses need to focus on more empathetic, more transparent leadership.