Research from Macquarie University Business School unpacks the new, COVID-inspired workplace leader.
There are as many leadership styles as there are shades on the colour wheel. While some people like to rule with an iron fist, others prefer to take on the qualities of a transformational leader, for example. Each preference is dependent, of course, on the circumstances the leaders are operating in and the people they’re managing.
The pandemic has presented a common circumstance for all workplaces across the globe, meaning some leaders have changed tact. Many have been forced to up their game and hone their leadership style to zero in on employees’ needs and challenges.
When the pandemic is in the dust, some of them will slip back into their old ways – that’s inevitable. Others will look back and remember COVID-19 simply as “this thing we got through”. For others, however, this will be the catalyst that caused them to fundamentally rethink and reshape how they choose to lead.
New research from Macquarie Business School and consultancy firm We Are Unity delves into the emergence of a new type of pandemic-inspired leader – the avocado leader.
After interviewing leaders of ASX200 companies and 100 mid-to-senior level managers across Australia, they saw an important shift in leadership behaviours due to the pandemic. The big question is, is this shift here to stay?
What is an avocado leader?
“An avocado leader is someone with a soft, empathetic outer layer balanced with a harder, commercially-focused core,” says Nick Tucker, culture and performance lead at We Are Unity.
Over the last few decades, we’ve seen incremental shifts towards building leaders’ ‘soft skills’ but, in most cases, it hasn’t been considered a priority.
“We’ve never seen an executive have their bonus hinge upon their level of self awareness or empathy, right? It’s all about business results and achieving that through a commercial lens,” says Tucker.
The problem with this approach is that it misses the most crucial challenges that employees face in 2020.
“We need to show employees that we care about their wellbeing and if they’re spending 10 hours of the day staring into their Zoom calls.”
COVID-19 has upped that care factor in a massive way. Leaders, the report found, are now moving towards much more human-centric behaviours.
According to the report, leadership behaviours driving change at pace are empathy and demonstrating care (22 per cent), decisiveness (21 per cent) and connectedness through proactively nurturing relationships with employees (17 per cent).
Making speedy decisions in tense times is leadership 101, so it’s no surprise that this came out as one of the key responses. More surprising, and promising, are the statistics around connectedness between leaders and their employees. Seventeen per cent may not be an overwhelming number, but it’s certainly not insignificant.
“I think this is a great concept, particularly as we move away from the old-style management from ten years ago which focused on not asking about the personal issues,” says Denise Jepsen, associate professor at Macquarie Business School.
“Now the world has changed and we’re seeing managers start to realise that it is a whole person that they’ve employed,” she says.
“Many managers have always been hard on the inside. They’ve been asked to be commercially-minded. Now we’re asking them to be soft on the outside; to be human.”
It’s important to note that Tucker and Jepsen aren’t denying how necessary commercially-minded leaders are – that’s why they’ve put that at the centre of their concept. They’re simply encouraging leaders to take a more holistic view.
“There’s a lot of blood being split at the moment and fear circulating. You do need to have that tough core to manage those things. We need those businesses to stay in business. It’s tough out there,” says Jepsen.
Advocating for avocado leadership
If someone has been leading a certain way for, say, 30 years, asking them to ‘soften up’ is akin to the old cliche “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”.
To encourage a leadership mindset shift, Tucker says HR professionals should focus on three things: resetting expectations, building soft skill capabilities and holding them accountable.
Getting these three things right is your recipe for competitive advantage, he says.
Start by creating a common agenda that is understood by all and embedded into your company culture. Creating the right level of urgency – i.e. a burning platform for change – can enable organisations to “cut through red tape, empower decision-making and deliver results”, the report says.
It notes that you need to strike the right balance when encouraging a sense of urgency – you don’t want to add undue stress onto people and exacerbate underlying wellbeing issues.
Taking the time to review your listening strategy and performance metrics, the report reads, is also an effective way to ensure you’re gathering the best data to inform the decisions the business is making – and to track employee sentiment about leadership.
Tucker adds that you need to offer measurable and observable outcomes that are data-backed.
“The biggest tool I use with executives in terms of getting them to shift their behaviours or mindsets is by proving the link to the commercials.”
“That’s where people analytics plays a key role. Build a framework that’s based in real science and predictive analytics so you know you’re focusing on the right thing.”
For HR professionals, the key is helping organisations place the same value on soft behaviours as the commercial ones.
“What happens when sales go down? The company creates a tiger team and does all this extra work to figure out what’s going on,” says Tucker.
“But if you start seeing a leadership capability drop, people think, ‘It’s just COVID. That’s a confounding factor that I’ll just rationalise away.’ But if a leader isn’t delivering on [softer business metrics], that’s the same as the leader not delivering on one of those harder business metrics.”
How do we sustain this mindset?
Is all this a flash in the pan? Or could it signal a new era of workplace leaders? Jepsen believes it’s the latter.
“This will fundamentally change how people lead. It has to, from a health perspective. We need managers to understand that if their employees are able to work from home, you need to know where they live. What conditions are they working in? Do they have the internet? For those in vulnerable groups, who do they live with? And where do those other people in the household work?”
Employers have to care not only about their employees, but also the context encompassing their lives. Adding more complexity to the matter, of course, is the fact that each individual person will have their own context. Leaders can’t have all the answers and no one should expect them to, but starting from a place of empathy and connection will help.
It makes no sense to ditch this new management approach, says Jepsen, because all it will take is for rumblings of another outbreak to occur and people will be flocking back to their homes. So leaders need to maintain that genuine care and concern in order to keep the wheels turning (also, because it’s just the right thing to do).
“If you start seeing a leadership capability drop, people think, ‘It’s just COVID. That’s a confounding factor that I’ll just rationalise away.’ But if a leader isn’t delivering on [softer business metrics], that’s the same as the leader not delivering on one of those harder business metrics.” – Nick Tucker
This is an opportunity for leaders to reset in a more thoughtful way, says Jepsen.
Prior to COVID-19, thinking about planning for the future of work felt like a mammoth task. The concept of what work will look and feel like felt difficult to grasp – like trying to imagine a new colour from scratch. Despite this, we felt we had time to research, trial and slowly transition into new ways of working and leading.
COVID-19 blew that time out of the water by adding a layer of urgency. The future of work isn’t a fluffy, far-reaching topic that we can ponder upon anymore. It’s here and workplace leaders are having to quickly sort the wheat from the chaff in terms of how they choose to proceed.
While it feels like an overwhelming task, we’re not going to reinvent our workplaces overnight. And it’s important to take bite-sized chunks. In this case, it’s about how to strengthen workplaces for the future by having capable leaders at the helm – leaders who can cope with tough business challenges while simultaneously catering to the vulnerabilities of their workforce.
The researchers are currently conducting interviews with the participants again to follow up and see how sentiment has shifted over the last few months.
“The first set of results was quite positive,” says Jepsen. “I think that’s the difference between corporate Australia and other parts of the business world. We’re expecting to see some interesting things in the next round, but there are probably going to be some tough realities to come out of those interviews too.
“HR has got a tough job ahead of them to help leaders keep the heart in the business without letting the softer issues go brown. Keep that skin on.”
Download the full report from Macquarie Business School and We Are Unity.
Leaders of the future will require a new set of skills. To help you pick the right person for the role, AHRI’s short course on behavioural interviewing skills will offer some helpful tips and tools.