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Leaders need to prepare for the next abnormal

In March 2020, the world changed overnight. And with it changed what’s expected of leaders. In just two months, we saw countless examples of good and bad leadership, as people leaders struggled to keep their teams safe, cohesive, and productive. The pandemic required them to have non-binary and non-traditional responses to problem-solving, to demonstrate and communicate with empathy, and to prioritize with clarity. Tough decisions and juggling targets made many a leader step back and realize how unprepared they were for this new way of work. And how they wish they’d had more training to meet the seemingly unsurmountable workplace challenges, head-on.

Pre-COVID, leadership development was already ripe for disruption. Now, while countries and companies are crawling towards reopening, it behooves organizations to take a hard look at how they train and develop their leaders.  

It is vital to listen to what leaders are saying, and how they are perceiving the development opportunities they currently have access to.

So, I reached out to Greg Zlevor, CEO and president of Westwood International, who has, over the years, invested upwards of $20,000 in attending leadership masterclass programs.

For those of us involved in leadership training, it is obvious that there is a widening gap between what’s needed in leadership development and what’s available in an increasingly purpose-driven marketplace.

Greg’s experience with leadership programs just underscored that gap.

“Since it was a mastermind, I expected to be one among no more than 15-20 others,” said Greg. “I expected an expert to drill into how I work. To give me direct feedback about how I was going about my deliverables, how I was behaving, how I was facilitating, or how I was leading. I expected to have direct access to my leadership trainer(s). I expected that the process would be facilitated in a way where I could exchange ideas, help, and peer support with other leaders in the program. And finally, I was led to believe that I would be “in class” with some of the most famous global leaders I had heard of. That I would have first-hand contact with them,” added Greg.

What he got in return, Greg clarified, was “more like a mini-conference,” of 150 people. He did not have access to the person leading the program. He did not get direct feedback from the facilitator or their team. He did not find a transparent platform to meet his peers and exchange ideas. The onus was upon Greg to start his own small groups or sessions and facilitate the conversations he wanted to have. He’d often find himself walking away from these weekend-long leadership summits with no handouts, no manuals, or even a booklet.

“We were learning from people who didn’t know what they were doing,” said Greg.

Next, I spoke to Cat O'Shaughnessy Coffrin, Founder & CEO of Captivating Consulting LLC. Before starting her own consultancy, Cat was a managing director for a company she had helped shape and grow. In that role, she recalls feeling discouraged that the only people who had a platform for external thought leadership were the CEOs. “I started to feel kind of hamstrung from that. I rarely got access to a network outside my company or even the benefit of exposure to people whom I didn't work with every day,” Cat said.  

Indeed, we cannot get an accurate perception of ourselves without our peers helping us to reflect on what we are and what we stand for.

When budgetary cuts sweep through organizations in crisis, professional training and leadership development are early and unfortunate casualties. However, we argue that a crisis is exactly the wrong time to stop investing in your people.

The three of us launched a survey in March to check the validity of our hypothesis. We wanted to know what preferences, needs, and behaviors have been overlooked in leadership development programs.

Our survey was fielded throughout the month of March 2020, as this offered us a chance to capture insights in a window that saw a rapid increase in virtual working.  

We heard from 71 people leaders. Our respondents came from every global region and represented mid- to senior-level executives and leaders. They hailed from a broad cross-section of company size, with 36.6% from organizations over $1 billion in revenue, 35.2% from companies below $10 million, and the rest falling somewhere in between.

Four key findings emerged from our pilot survey:

  • People leaders appreciate and want more leadership development opportunities, and 77.5% of respondents describe the impact as “interesting and useful” or “life-changing.”
  • They desire an increase in both one-on-one and peer-based opportunities, ideally delivered in a flexible way that brings these things together.
  • There is a desire to take more ownership in the process of selecting and pursuing leadership development opportunities.
    • Majority of respondents prefer to turn to their professional network or the internet to find programs, rather than their company resources.
    • 8% stated that they would prefer, or be open to, funding it themselves.
  • The top shortcoming in today’s offerings is that they are “too expensive.”

Here’s a detailed look at our survey report, “Rethinking leadership development in the COVID era.”

From these results, we surmised that leaders are challenged by the expectations to deliver results, inspire teams, and create meaningful impact, all at once, and all while life and work are undergoing an epic overhaul.

Equipped with these results, Cat, Greg, and I have partnered to start narrowing the gap in leadership development. Together, we have created a one-of-a-kind masterclass to prepare leaders for the next abnormal.

Awaken the Leader is a 6-month leadership course that combines six individualized coaching sessions with seven virtual classes in a peer setting. Participants will also be working through three modules one-to-one with Cat, Greg, and I.

The course is designed to provide a three-pronged approach to leadership development:

  • Build your mental wealth and resilience in the workplace

    The writing is on the wall. COVID-19 will have significant mental health fall out in the workplace. After the great recession of 2008, research indicated that a one percent increase in unemployment was accompanied by a one percent increase in suicide rates in the U.S. In a recent article, mental health advocate and strategist, Mark Henick explained that “there is a peak-and-valley response in our nervous system when faced with trauma. Right now, we are at a peak, in which we are engaging with the immediate threat of the pandemic. You go into survival mode, which can be very taxing on a person’s mental health. And in fact, it doesn’t actually let you think through or process what’s happening to you. Its only interest is in getting and keeping you alive and keeping you safe. Once the pandemic is over, there will be a valley, in which we recover from that threat. But the problem is, going back to baseline without support can take a lot longer than we may think.”

Leaders must be ready to respond to their employee’s mental health needs when the valley comes. In the first two months of the masterclass, I teach leaders about mental wealth and resilience in the workplace, with coursework designed to explore their own style, strengths, and tendencies as a leader.  

  • Unearth and define your personal brand.

This unprecedented time is the best time to build your personal brand attribute of “leader”. The time to “flex your leadership muscle is not when things are routine and normal—it’s during times of change and challenge.”

We couldn’t agree more with this Harvard Business Review article which highlights that “Your brand is a powerful hedge against professional misfortune. If there are layoffs or cutbacks at your company, being recognized in your field makes it far more likely that you’ll be snapped up quickly by another firm.” 

Humans have always responded to the power of stories. Even more so during crises. Nothing helps build a brand better than stories. Steve Jobs’ talk at a Stanford Commencement is a crowd favourite when it comes to most moving speeches. This is so because of the storyteller that Jobs’ was. “Execs love to hear talks like this, but few are comfortable delivering them. Why? Because great stories expose our flaws and our struggles. This is what makes them inspiring, and not sharing them is such a missed opportunity to connect with your audience,” said Nancy Duarte in “How to identify and tell your most powerful stories.”

In months three and four of our masterclass with Cat, leaders will build on their internal awareness to help unearth and articulate their own personal purpose and brand. 

  • Build and lead high-performance teams

    COVID-19 has created what Time magazine called "the world's largest work-from-home experiment." It's teaching leaders who were uncomfortable with WFH that systems can be just as productive from home. But it takes time and patience to reorient managers to get high performance from a remote team. 

“Remote or not, employees can only be accountable for what's expected of them. And to hold remote workers accountable, managers must provide clear and collaborative expectations,” according to a Gallup study which found that only 26% of employees strongly agree their manager is good at helping them clarify priorities, and six in 10 employees know what is expected of them at work. 

Gallup’s research also points to a necessity for frequent conversations to yield the best results in employee engagement. It suggests that “remote workers are three times more likely to be engaged if they receive feedback from their manager at least a few times per month.” 

Overcommunicating with employees is the need of the hour. In the third module, Greg will enable leaders to focus on how to live and act their personal brand of leadership in the context of their day-to-day leadership and team management.

At the end of the 6-month course, leaders will also be coached to create a brief, 2-minute TED-style presentation where they can tell their personal story and present their personal brand. 

COVID-19 has highlighted what Diane Mulcahy underscored in her book, The Gig Economy —"We’re seeing only one trend here, which is that the gig economy is big and getting bigger. Companies will do just about anything to avoid hiring full-time employees. Add to that the fact that there is no job security anymore, and workers are increasingly aware that they need to work differently if they want to create any sort of stability for themselves.”

To find out the details and logistics of Awaken the Leader masterclass, call: 802-253-1933 or Email: [email protected]

Not ready yet? Feel free to share your thoughts and leave me a comment.


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