Thoughts From the Bunker – Challenges of Remote Leadership

In the past two weeks I have sensed a real uptick in activity across our Defence and Govt clients with working patterns adapting to the current reality. This has resulted in mounting pressure on leaders as they try to balance the demands upon them in sectors where, for many, activity has increased supporting the new ‘Front Line’ and essential programs, challenging traditional leadership styles and methods. All of this needs to be balanced with the BAU activity and perhaps other areas of your business where life isn’t quite so rosy. Some describe, in effect, managing multiple businesses within one company, with some Divisions are flat out while others are in decline or near shutdown, resulting in differing pressures and emotions within your workforce. On top of that the day to day P&L and cash flow issues have been bought into sharp relief, even in businesses with significant balance sheet. These are considerable challenges for leaders even in the old world where you can pop across the corridor and share with a colleague. But when we add in the challenges of remote operation at the mercy of Zoom or Teams, these pressures are magnified.

As always these are not original ideas and I would not presume to lecture such an illustrious audience on leadership! But I felt that it might be good to share some thoughts, gathered from numerous conversations over the last three weeks just in case there are any pearls of wisdom lurking in there.

It’s all About You. Great quote from an article I read in ‘Civil Service World’ (yes I have some time on my hands…) – “Remember to put your oxygen mask on before helping others”!! As a leader it is key to ensure that you manage your time and understand how to control the individual demands put upon you, ensuring that there is down time during the day and a switch off point in the evening. Those working for US masters have an even greater problem with time zones and it’s important to have breaks even if you can’t have hard and fast rules and down tools at the end of the UK day. Exercise, even if it’s a stroll round the garden offers a great opportunity to clear the mind. One individual has developed what is now a guilty secret in learning to play COD (Call of Duty) as his release! Another individual changes from his ‘work’ clothes to more casual attire to mark the end of the day! For him the mental exercise of drawing a line and switching off is important and this marks his move from the office to a home environment. However you do it regaining a level of work life balance is essential for continued efficient operation in the absence of the train journey, coffee or end of the day beer, which we now weirdly long for. It’s about boundaries: A working day with no boundaries is not sustainable. Be available to your people but ‘within boundaries’ and conversely respect your employee’s boundaries….

Team and delegation. Have a realistic look at your workload. Some of those who were under pressure in isolation said that if they looked honestly at their ‘virtual In Tray’ they were delegating less than they would do in a BAU environment. A perceived lack of visibility meant that they kept their arms around more than was normal – again not sustainable. You have built a team around you so use it. They are sitting there in uncertain times with the same pressures within their universe and want to be able to demonstrate their capabilities in a time of crisis. So use and challenge them with realistic tasks and targets and ensure that this is backed up with positive reinforcement and support – everyone loves and ‘Attaboy’ as my US boss loved to call it!

Approachable and Open Dialogue. It’s fine to ask for help. You need to and you should ensure that you promote that culture within your organization. A business where that is seen as a weakness will quickly begin to show cracks as the pressure builds.

Positive but realistic mindset and communication style. Video isn’t for everyone and authenticity is key. So if you’re not Philip Schofield or Alan Sugar then don’t go down that route! Work on a communication style that works for you but it needs to be engaging. Regular contact with your senior team is a given, but messages to the wider business are important conveying honesty, integrity and trust in uncertain times.

What will you take from this experience? Start looking for the positives and lessons learnt. Undoubtedly we will see new behaviours from the client and new practices emerge from your business which can improve efficiency and profitability. My last business was a Search firm focused on investment banking. The Global Financial Crisis of 2008 had a similar effect on our business and our clients as we are seeing today (without lockdown!). My major client was a global investment bank that three years after the crisis was just over 50% smaller than it was entering the crisis. Huge acceleration in Automation, a flattening of the title pyramid and a real focus on efficiency, identification of non-essential/non performers led to a re shaping of the business and in due course greater profitability. Government Regulation emerged as a byproduct which changed behaviours and demanded greater access to information and systems to satisfy the need, meaning a greater investment of tech savvy and compliance staff to balance and control the bankers and traders! For us going forward, home working will become a reality for all but the most sensitive programs as the client reviews a lazy classification system and embraces the old fashioned system of veiled speech! The prospect of furlough has meant that internal mobility has become a focus, do you understand and have visibility of the skills within the business? Employee/Outsource or automate? Do you need so much real estate? Worth engaging the team in looking at future operating models and how you emerge from this in better shape, stronger and differentiate from the crowd. Bring the team together for virtual brainstorming! These are topics that we’ll pick up in future weeks.

Again please take this in the spirit it meant. Colleagues and competitors are all finding operational rhythm in this new world and no one has all the answers. I will keep in touch and continue to pull together thoughts and lessons as we move closer to the Nirvana that is BAU, drinks and commuting!

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