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Leadership: Navigating challenging and changing times

The Covid-19 pandemic and ongoing economic uncertainty are putting business leadership under the microscope and (re)defining what makes a good leader in challenging times.

During a turbulent few years, people have looked to the government for certainty in an uncertain world; now, employees are looking to their leadership teams. They want to work for a caring organisation, one that gives them clarity, psychological safety and the opportunity to work flexibly so they can continue to do their best for the company whilst also having the time and space to live well for themselves and their families.  

So, what is good leadership practice in these times? That's what we got our panellists to consider during our November Best Companies Live event.

They highlighted the different leadership styles in business and how they're working to keep people connected to their company vision and values through tough times, and good, and wherever they're based.

This article shares highlights from the conversation. Watch the full sessions below.

According to Best Companies founder and CEO, Jonathan Austin, a 'new dynamic' is taking hold. Challenges creating uncertainty for us all are now colouring attitudes to workplace factors that were once standalone.

Best Companies data from autumn 2021 onwards suggests that, for the first time, how employees feel treated at work – the 'Fair Deal' factor – is influencing their views on organisational leadership and their company as a whole.

Those leaders “who recognise the importance of listening and creating certainty”, says Jonathan, are the “ones winning out.”

Most companies understand that 'Fair Deal' is more than fair remuneration and are offering employees additional benefits like hybrid working for a better work-life balance. And staff are embracing this opportunity beyond Covid. Almost a quarter (24%) of all workers are choosing hybrid working, with more than four in 10 (42%), spending most of their working week at home.

But hybrid working can make business leadership challenges more pronounced. These include maintaining an inclusive culture, finding new ways to communicate effectively, and keeping people focused on business goals and connected to each other when they’re not together in the workplace.

Our panellists share what's helped them achieve Best Companies 'Best leader' accolades in a changing and challenging environment.

1. Set the scene from day one

Ed Steer, CEO of Sphere Digital Recruitment commits to meeting every single employee on their first day at the company. He benefitted from the experience as a young graduate and it stuck with him. He sees it as setting the tone – a means to promote approachability and transparency from the start.

"I talk through who we are, where we came from, the key people in the organisation and where they sit in the organisational chart so they can see themselves in the business and that they matter. As well as their training schedule, I talk through the company's vision and values and make them meaningful – how we actually use them and how they play out in simple terms in our day-to-day work."

Just as importantly for Ed, a CEO-led induction helps build that personal connection:

"As the company's got bigger, I use it as an opportunity to say that whilst I may not be involved in their day-to-day, I'm available, and I'm really grateful they trust me and the company and they've chosen to work with us. I say, 'you've got your manager, but I'm around if needs be'."

2. Be inclusive and find ways to really connect

For Simon Grosse, CEO of FSP Consulting Services, hybrid working has undoubtedly influenced his leadership style. He has a heightened awareness of the need for inclusivity and to think carefully about effective communication styles and how they may differ online from in-person.

While he acknowledges the benefits of hybrid working, he still values the energy that’s generated on occasions where people are physically together – something that fuels the success of the company's 'Unity Event'.

"It's an all-company event. We get 150 people in the room, and it's about the power of togetherness as an organisation. We don't talk targets. We don't talk metrics. We don't talk clients. We don't talk numbers. None of that. We talk about the importance of purpose and values. And we hear from colleagues across the business – their professional and personal stories. That's powerful because you get to understand the human behind the role they do. It's a chance to connect. It's a very 'hearts and minds' day. People always come away feeling super connected to each other and to the purpose we have as an organisation."

Simon sees initiatives like this as a way to get people at all levels to have a stake in the company culture and be custodians of it – something critical when scaling up.

3. Value and nurture relationships

Willmott Dixon makes a concerted effort to keep 2000 people across 20 locations (and their home workplaces) living the company culture and up-to-date on strategy and the direction of travel. And it does this through various means, from social media and 1-to1s to regular emails and conferences.

But for Group CEO Rick Willmott, leadership is not just about the 'corporate' but about supporting real relationships to develop. To that end, the company limits the headcount in local offices:

"We work on a principle that one of our Managing Directors must know their people by face and name and at least know something about their background, their work within the company and their family. And I think if you go any more than 300, you lose that opportunity. We're a family name business, and we strive for a family culture."

4. Stay authentic and people-centric

For Greg Jackson, CEO of Octopus Energy, authenticity is key to good business leadership. In a previous company, he was one of the three founders who went out for a beer every Friday night to deal with the week's stresses and put them to bed. This evolved as the company grew and was the thinking behind the company's 'Weekly family dinner' Zoom call.

"We get up to 3000 staff from around the world together every Friday at 4.15 pm. We'll share stories of the week – positive things we've done to help customers or to drive change. We also talk about the negative things too. It's very interactive.

"Sometimes in a business, one department or function will get frustrated by another, but if we come back together, it really helps with unity and prevents organisational politics.

"It's one of the highlights of my week. We tend not to do very much prep; it's very informal. But it's the fluidity and authenticity that keeps it real."

So what makes a good leader? Our panellists have demonstrated that clarity, transparency, authenticity and relationships are key to leadership – serving you well in periods of stability and challenge. Reaching and engaging employees, wherever they are, just requires effort, imagination, a personal touch and an ongoing commitment to live and breathe the company's values.

Do your employees feel inspired and empowered by their leaders, or is there room for improvement? Effective leadership strategies drive individual and organisational growth, so find out if you're on the right track or if you need a re-think by taking a look at our b-Heard employee engagement survey.

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