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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.

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