Post-COVID Leadership

by Michael O’Leary, Chief Executive at HRM Recruitment

We face an ambiguous future. As the economy reopens, leaders are addressing their toughest challenge yet, how to bring employees back safely while rebuilding operations and recovering revenue streams.


The only helpful aspect of leading in a crisis is that it focuses minds in the early phase. For a period, people behave as if they are in a start up. That intensity is difficult to sustain in the midst of a tragic pandemic. Kevin Sneader, Global Managing Partner at McKinsey, talks about how firms and managers must “Act with urgency” in a post-Covid return. He believes businesses “have worked faster and better”, demonstrating more agility and decisiveness than they thought possible. Our own clients have shared the unlocking of positions and changes that have occurred, achieving in months what would otherwise have taken years. Sneader says “maintaining that sense of possibility will be an enduring source of competitive advantage”. So Line Managers must shift from being about delivery to being totally about operational effectiveness. Personally encouraging their teams to spend time innovating not just operating.

Leaders with remote and shielded workplaces will now put emphasis on assessing outcomes rather than tasks and the time it takes to complete them. They must ensure expectations of employees are extremely clear, what is to be achieved and how. Line Managers will need automated metric measurement flows, given spontaneously lean ins or the ability to have a discreet word in the corner with an employee is gone. Smart and timely intervention using data will be critical to sustaining performance.

Reduced face to face contact in businesses means communication on all matters must be strong and simple. We have all experienced sharing a message to a group being met with multiple interpretations. This will be harder to correct in the future leading to unnecessary resistance, at a time when responsiveness will be key. As organisation structures are likely to flatten, managers must ensure information sweeps across the business in a consistent, fact based manner, and includes remote workers. Celebrating good news will be essential to counter the wall of difficult health and economic data confronting employees on social media and news sites.

Early on in this crisis, a Gallup study identified four universal needs that employees have of their leaders during times of challenge. They are Trust, Compassion, Stability and Hope. As firms return to full operational status, this will be unlike previous recoveries as reminders of this crisis will remain in place all over our organisations. These, in the form of protective shielding, health and safety consumables, Covid signage, absence of tactile interactions, are necessary for health and wellbeing. But they also risk turning firms into sterile environments making engagement and performance harder to achieve. So line managers must also demonstrate empathy, humility and vulnerability to drive productivity.

Recruiting into line roles will now prioritise these traits. What we know from the Covid period is that while we can cover and cope for the absence of these essential elements in our leaders during good times, they become exposed quickly when a crisis hits. And this crisis is with us for some time yet to come.