Courageous Leadership during Uncertainty – Personal Advice from 3 CEOs

Over the past few months, economic and social disruption of unprecedented proportions has resulted in a sharper spotlight on political and business leaders, as they navigate through the crisis. Now Denmark is progressing from a period of crisis management to one of adjustment and acclimatisation to the yet to be defined – “New Normal”. As such, many companies are already looking at what has been learned this Spring, while CEOs are reflecting on their leadership values and showing the courage to take new paths.

During this volatile time, leaders are required to be courageous, accept and manage uncertainty, show vulnerability as well as empathy, while also rapidly needing to re-plan and innovate. To most people – a rather daunting task! Leading organizations are at the same time also taking the opportunity to re-evaluate, what it means to be a socially responsible and sustainable business for the future.

Within The Diversity Council, a strategic corporate alliance and international diversity accelerator of 19 companies, these are values we have been looking at extensively over the past five years, given the essential part diversity has to play in ensuring an innovative, agile and human-centric corporate mindset.

In the light of the global crisis, I asked some of the CEOs within our Council about the values they currently are embracing, and the priorities they are making, to steer their organisations through the seismic changes.

Recalibrating the Leadership Compass
‘Microsoft Teams’ and other digital platforms provided by Microsoft have certainly been empowering millions during this time, where virtual meetings and collaboration suddenly overnight became the only way forward. But how best to maintain purpose and direction when apart? Nana Bule, the CEO of Microsoft Denmark, has managed the past few months with a keen focus on cohesion and connection across the company.

”Visibility, clear direction and empathy have been key principles for me during these times. When you are working from home for a long period of time it’s easy to feel detached and lose a sense of purpose. It has been essential for me, that we move closer at all levels of the organization, increasing frequency of town hall meetings to set direction and provide guidance, run daily check-ins in each team, and 1:1 connections to get at sense of the general sentiment in the organization, and understand individual needs.”

Leading a company is often compared to being the captain of a ship: responsible for the crew and steady sailing. An un-forecasted crisis such as this is comparable to a storm, and as such the tools needed to navigate are different to those during calm water. Nana explains the different stages of crisis management, and the requirement to both settle and gear up:

“Leading through a crisis also enforces a recalibration of your leadership compass. As the storm hits, your sole focus has to be on getting the ship into safe harbour. From there your role and focus changes as you initiate recovery and reinvention of your business. I have also had my organizational beliefs and biases challenged during these 8 weeks, which is a good reminder about the human potential. While some employees have been struggling a bit, we see others gear up in light of the crisis to support our customers and communities.”

Clear Sight of the Captain
One of our newest partners in The Diversity Council is PensionDanmark. Although the crisis has had a huge impact on the financial markets worldwide, the path to recovery is looking clearer.  The CEO at PensionDanmark, Torben Möger Pedersen believes that openness with employees and customers is equally vital.

“Authenticity, efficiency in decision-making, agility and empathy are decisive – not just in a time of crisis, but also in the management of an innovative sustainable corporation. Whether the sun is shining, or you are facing a storm, it is crucial for the staff always to have a clear sight of the captain and that the virtual door is open 24/7.

It is imperative that employees know that they are backed up when making the independent decisions, that need to be made, even though you cannot look each other in the eyes over the desk first. They need certainty of their scope – and that the management seems close, even if the distance is great by physical means. It is a huge mental upheaval for both employees and managers no longer to be part of a physical work community. At the same time other concerns may arise.

Communication in uncertain times is not just about providing factual knowledge – it has also been crucial to me, that the employees were reassured that PensionDanmark’s DNA does not change in time of crisis even though most other things in society seem to change rapidly.

Our purpose is the same today and tomorrow as it was yesterday.

My advice to others is:

• More than ever before, we as leaders must be significant leaders and examples – also in terms of enforcing the health guidelines, when returning to the office.

• Communicate frequently, openly and honestly. Do not be afraid of repetition. Have respect for the fact that employees react very differently in the situation – both when they are sent home and when they return. The corporation must be able to accommodate the different approaches.

• Learn from the experience of two months of working remotely. You may need to consider a new balance between working in the office and working from home. Virtual meetings have come to stay and are very effective, especially when the participants know each other”.

Markers of Openness and Authenticity
Like many organisations, KPMG has been tracking the impact of the global COVID-19 crisis closely to ensure they can advise their customers in the clearest way. CEO & Senior Partner, Henrik R. Mulvad, observes that this is not only a time for clear communication, but also an opportunity for innovation and disruption. When ‘business-as-we-know-it’ is challenged to such a drastic extent, it is a chance to challenge accepted practices and consider new avenues of business potential at the same time.

“It is vital, as the CEO, to step up and communicate in an open, emphatic and authentic manner, when navigating through a period of significant uncertainty. You rarely have all answers, but you should openly communicate and explain the process of getting an overview of the situation and how decisions will be taken.

No employee should doubt that we act and tackle the challenges together, because you cannot perform as a team or colleague if insecurities or the fear of failing overwhelms you. I like to say; it’s not about surviving in times of great uncertainty, but living life, even when it might be difficult.

Challenges opens up for new ways of innovating, collaborating and thinking and in KPMG we have in a very short period of time collaborated in new ways from home and developed new client offerings. From a strategic business perspective a key ability is to stay close to your clients and find the right balance between taking decisive action and making the right investments to become stronger in the longer run, instead of just cutting costs.”

Optimism on the Horizon
In my own company, Above & Beyond Group, all our diversity activities and business initiatives are attuned to the vision of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, specifically goal 5 and 10 (gender equality and reduced inequalities). Meanwhile within our Diversity Council, we have always operated in light of SDG 17 ‘Partnerships’, as we firmly believe that only by close collaboration and co-creation will real progress be achieved.

Although the human cost of this crisis cannot be overlooked, it is also reassuring to note the value-based attitudes and focus on community, that is emerging during this time.  In my opinion, it is only through open innovation, cultural understanding and cooperation that we will be able to restore the global economy and build a better and more responsible world community.

Even amidst financial insecurity, we are seeing many CEOs adopt an approach that is far more inclusive and people orientated. When comparing the advice and observations of Nana, Henrik and Torben, I was struck by their shared prioritization of employee well-being, and their emphasis on clear communication, openness, and authenticity. For years, these kinds of values have been touted as defining the world of future business, and it seems to me that COVID-19 has brought these core competencies and the theory rapidly into the present.

2020 has given us a historic chance to rethink business practices and management values. We know that according to research, diverse and equal teams result in 11x greater innovation and make better business decisions 87% of the time.

If innovation, empathy and openness is at the heart of the recovery we are in, then I choose to be an optimist and think, that we are taking much-needed steps away from the status quo and moving into a more inclusive, diverse and sustainable business reality.

Think of CSR as “COVID-19 Social Responsibility”

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is an increasingly important signifier of ‘conscientious business practice’, and many companies prioritise having a positive social impact, alongside traditional success benchmarks such as a high profit and share price. CSR also makes smart business sense as it strengthens relationships with consumers, who align with the values showcased by the company.

In light of the COVID-19 crisis, maintaining the human-centric values represented through CSR work is essential. Organizations will be applauded for adopting a ‘socially responsible’ approach within their own organisation – through flexible working hours, support for employees’ mental health and social-distancing measures, but companies should also be careful not to de-prioritise the work they may be doing internationally, and the importance of maintaining charitable support across the world.

The Dire Impact of Plummeting Tourism and Lockdowns
Globally, around 10% of the world population work in tourism and the UN World Tourism Organization estimates that international tourism could decline by up to 80% this year, and not recover any time soon. These facts are threatening over hundreds of millions of jobs and small businesses. For economies like e.g. India, Indonesia and Thailand, flight bans, and a lack of travel could have a devastating impact, especially for the poorest people, who live and survive day-to-day.

Under current circumstances in India, with 1.3 billion people hoping the harsh nation-wide lockdown soon will end, still 70,000 cases have been detected as of the 12th of May and the curved has not ceased to rise. Millions are attempting to practise social distance in slums, where one toilet is shared between 1,440 people according to a recent article by CNN. Hence the need for aid and charitable support is more important than ever. The International Committee of the Red Cross warn that consequences for those living in poverty and fragile situations could be ‘catastrophic’.

Sisterhood Foundation Aims to Promote Courage & Change
In Above & Beyond, CSR is personal. Our projects are run by the Sisterhood Foundation, which was established in 2010, to support and empower women in the poorest areas of the world with: ‘Courage, Care, Choices and Change’. Our numerous charity projects cover three main areas: educational, entrepreneurial through micro-financing, and medical/emotional support. The foundation has e.g. invested in 40+ small business ventures run by women, to give them financial independence, while thousands of students have benefitted from our English language classes and over 100 college scholarships have been awarded annually. By supporting women at all stages in their lives we can have a sustained and significant impact, ensuring they have ownership over their own future and can provide for their children, so they can strive for a better life.

Women at Risk – Now More Than Ever
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), 81 percent of Indian women work in the informal economy, and carry the burden of unpaid labour in the home. On the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap report, India is ranked 112th overall and 5th lowest when it comes to economic participation. Hence women’s rights, health and independence must be protected during times of unrest such as this.

In some countries, like India, COVID-19 lockdown, does not just mean a few weeks working from home, in safety and shelter, no it often leads to instant starvation for an entire family – as millions just live from daily earnings. They usually survive by selling things on the street, and now they are by military force confined to their small sheds in the slums. The impact can be devastating long-term on education, public safety, and livelihoods in general. Cases of domestic violence is also on an alarming rise.

Though many companies are taking their internal CSR efforts very seriously, now may be the time to also look outwards and consider all the positive ripple effects, that can be had by corporately supporting those who truly are in urgent need – now more than ever.

If you are interested in supporting The Sisterhood Foundation, and our various CSR projects for women and girls in need in Chennai, India – please visit our website:

5 Key Competencies Emerging During ‘Business Unusual’

5 Key Competencies Emerging During ‘Business Unusual’

With ‘reopening’ on the horizon throughout Europe, and the 10th of May marking a shift in what lockdown will mean here in Denmark, many people are looking to what the personal and professional ‘new normal’ will look like.

In The Diversity Council, we have been in close dialogue with experts, politicians and business leaders and have noticed the recurrence of these 5 key attributes, when forecasting the kind of qualities that will be essential to business prosperity in the coming months and years.

Even as the huge human cost continues to be felt across the world, the changes of the current climate necessitate agile organisations to see the opportunities that can arise, while innovating, and responding to disruption.

KPMG, partner in The Diversity Council, has been covering the crisis extensively and in one article, emphasised that companies must be ‘agile and proactive to maximize value’. According to the May 2020 issue of Harvard Business Review, ‘building an agile enterprise means finding the right balance between standardizing operations and pursuing (sometimes risky) innovations.’ Many companies have had to adapt in the crisis: liquor manufacturers now producing hand sanitiser, car manufacturers delivering ventilators, and this kind of ‘blue-sky thinking’ is essential in uncertain times. According to research, innovation often thrive the most, when a company has a workforce with broad diversity.

Resilient Mindset
In parallel with agility, is the necessity of a resilient mindset. Businesses will have to support and empower their employees, as they deal with unprecedented disruption. For years we have extolled the virtues of ‘thinking disruptively’. Now that theory is becoming a reality.

A recent report from Diversity Council founding partner, PwC outlined: ‘It’s important to ensure that your people have the right skills and a willingness to embrace change. The speed of technological advances has already created significant demands for upskilling your workforce, and post-crisis demands will heighten that need.’ This upskilling process could require programs that equip teams and leaders with the tools and mindset to manage uncertainty and give them the confidence that they are being invested in and retained.

Digitalisation and Automation
The pandemic has resulted in a seismic shift from the physical interactions to the digital world. Beyond the obvious dependency on technology, that has defined the past few months, with Zoom and Microsoft Teams now accepted parts of day-to-day life, the way we use (and depend on) technology is likely to become even more essential. Investing in IT systems, considering online ways to communicate with customers instead of flying and accelerating automation to ensure rapid response as the situation develops, should all be prioritised.

In late 2017, the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that automation could affect from 400 million to 800 million jobs by 2030, but this figure is now, due to the pandemic, likely to rise further. Accelerating business investments in digital systems, and reassessing how your teams best incorporate technology, will be essential.

Community Thinking and Cooperation
Full re-opening of national borders is likely to be one of the last steps and consequentially, the focus of many businesses, at least short-term, will have to be regional more than global. In fact, the World Economic Forum has warned that ‘it is entirely possible that COVID-19 will precipitate the “waning of globalization”’. The repercussions of this kind of statement are huge for trade, international business and the global economy, but the negative ripple effects may also result in an increased desire for connectivity and community, in a new and more localized way.

In statements from the Assembly of European Regions, the values extolled during this time are those of coordination, cooperation, sharing and solidarity. It is consideration for fellow humans that has defined this period of lockdown: people retreat indoors for the sakes of neighbors, elderly relatives and strangers. For businesses and their people, it is important to be attuned to this mindset shift, and work with a human-centric approach.

Alignment with UNs SDGs
A recurring global theme of the COVID crisis is that this ‘new normal’ gives us a chance to rethink the ‘old normal’ and top leaders here in the Nordics agree. It will no longer be enough for businesses to cruise on autopilot. New paradigms will dictate business success as stalwarts of the global economy reassess outdated business practices. Part of this ‘re-evaluation’ could result in the Sustainable Development Goals coming even more to the forefront of business conversations. The interconnection of the goals will also become apparent, given close relations between health, inequalities, the climate, global production and the economy.

We are already seeing the positive ramifications for the environment, even as inequalities and poverty are highlighted by the exponential level of illness and death rates in deprived areas. Companies may evaluate how they can reopen with a greater focus on a more holistic approach to business success, through e.g. SDG 17 ‘partnerships for the goals’, collaboration and communication is encouraged.

The Ripple Effects of the Pandemic on Gender Equality

Earlier this month, the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, urged countries to, “Put women and girls at the centre of efforts to recover from COVID-19”. This came as a result of the disproportionate impact this crisis is having on women – in economic, domestic and health capacities.

Health Impact
Women represent 70% of the global health care workforce, the front-line of the COVID-19 response. In addition, some have criticized the way personal protective equipment (PPE) is designed for male users, endangering the lives of thousands of women. And in the US, nearly ¾ of the to date 9,000 healthcare workers, who have been infected, are women.

In terms of women’s health: women are also in general at a higher risk of infection given their higher exposure as care-providers at home. Being housebound also globally has resulted in a sky-rocking level of domestic abuse cases, as social distancing unfortunately can act as a pressure cooker for domestic violence.

Hence, although the mortality rate of COVID-19 is higher for men, there are still major ripple effects for women’s health. Hopefully, this crisis will highlight the need of a much more inclusive approach, to protect the global movement towards equality, and ensure those at the forefront of the COVID-19 don’t become its victims for years to come.

Economic Impact
The International Labour Organisation has estimated that lockdown measures now affect almost 2.7 billion workers, approximately 81% of the world’s workforce. Although this encompasses both men and women, 740 million women work in the informal economy. Research by LeanIn.Org has found that, so far, more than a third of women in the U.S. have experienced a major income disruption due to the pandemic.

While previous recessions have affected industries dominated by men, this crisis is having a far greater impact on service occupations with a higher rate of female employment. As millions of jobs are lost, the gains that have been made in recent decades in female labour force participation could be negatively affected.

In terms of the gender pay gap, which has been a hot topic for several years now, research carried out for PayScale, has shown that women who return to the workforce after a gap receive compensation offers that are 7% less than offers made to employees, who have never left the workforce. With the consequences of redundancies and furloughing, companies must maintain a focus on the gender pay gap to ensure this penalty doesn’t hit women re-entering the workforce.

However, as the economy opens up again, it could be an opportunity for organisations to reassess their talent pool, hiring practises and compensation schemes. Not only considering a more diverse range of talents and perspectives, but ensuring they implement inclusive and equal compensation schemes.

Domestic Impact
Worldwide, more than 1.5 billion children are out of school. Even before the crisis, women generally spent 3x as many hours as men in unpaid domestic work. But now, given that traditional childcare support – such as grandparents or neighbours – are discouraged due to social distancing rules, childcare responsibility falls more on women. This is especially true in Denmark and across Europe, where home-schooling is demanded, alongside work obligations.

A positive side effect of this issue may arise in two capacities though. Within the Diversity Council, partner companies have acknowledged the positive ripple effects of shared parental leave – and especially paternity leave. With statistically more women involved in healthcare services, and fathers therefore obligated to care for the children and run the obligatory home-schooling, this could result in a perspective shift, whereby men embrace a more significant role in childcare.

Secondly, the current necessity for flexibility and remote teams, could have longer term benefits as organisations adapt to a more inclusive and adaptable work style. This would be beneficial for both mothers and fathers, and in general, given the global trends towards more flexible work structures, boosting creativity and productivity.

Guterres from UN concluded his statement by observing: “Everything we do during and after the COVID-19 crisis must aim to build more equal, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies.” With so much uncertainty, this is a chance to look again at the aspects of our societies we take for granted, and re-prioritise, in order to also protect women against the health, economic and social consequences of Covid-19 and thereby committing to a more inclusive future world.

How to Engage an Entire Organisation Through Personalized Remote Learning

In the current global situation, with teams interacting remotely, and regular routines disrupted, engaging, inspiring and up-skilling your employees can require a new approach.

One way to create a collective focus and maintain motivation when apart is through adaptive learning online.

E-learning has been increasingly useful in a globalized world, where organizations operate across borders and time zones, and coordinating face-to-face teaching is impractical.

In this current situation, with the majority of workers out of office and unsettled, online learning is more important that ever as a way to unite teams and expand their skillset, when ‘in person’ learning is impossible.

McKinsey & Co. have observed that, ‘roughly one-half of in-person programs through June 30, 2020, have been postponed or cancelled in North America; in parts of Asia and Europe, the figure is closer to 100 percent.’ However, they argue: ‘Managers can’t push the pause button on capability building, so the moment belongs to virtual learning.’

For the past few years, Above & Beyond Group has been utilising our knowledge of diversity and inclusion (D&I) solutions and executive education to create online tools that can effectively onboard the entire organisation to the importance of an inclusive and respectful work-culture.

In partnership with Area9 Lyceum, these online tools use AI to facilitate behavioural change, and match individual learner needs. This results in an individually ‘one-to-one’ adapted course, that can be implemented across an entire organisation.

By focussing on human-orientated corporate values in this time of physical detachment, we can remind employees of their key role within their team, and the inclusive and sustainable practises that are essential, no matter whether you are working remotely or in an office.

Ulrik Juul Christensen, CEO of Area9 Lyceum, stated in a recent article: ‘For business leaders navigating these times, value-based principles must guide communication and interactions in the remote workplace. The values defined by TRICK (trust, respect, independence, collaboration, and kindness) serve as a proven guide to encourage the behaviors that can help everyone be successful through crisis and beyond.’

The first course, ‘Inclusive Culture and Unconscious Bias’, has been tailormade to onboard an entire organisation to the business case of D&I, while also teaching participants how they can take accountability for managing bias and contribute to a positive work environment.

The second course, ‘Respect in the Workplace’, outlines how D&I depends on a foundation of respect, where all employees can bring their whole selves to work. Participants learn how to contribute to a respectful work culture, and how to recognise and prevent harassment.

By utilising adaptive learning technology, during these challenging times, organisations can evolve together – in spite of being apart – and thereby ensure that when normalcy returns, everyone has an increased understanding of inclusive values, unconscious bias and why also respect is essential to have a diverse and successful workplace.

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