Thursday 2 July 2020 10:22 am

How to be a great boss in the era of Covid-19

Kate Mercer is co-founder of leadership consultancy Leaders Lab

In the 1980s, corporate leadership was all about command and control. 

It was the era of presenteeism, of leaving your jacket on the back of your chair for your boss to see. Just like baggy jeans and grunge music, it went out with the millennium.

Then came its polar opposite: formal, intimidating bosses were replaced with leaders who wanted to be liked. If your employee had a problem, you took them out for a beer. Team morale was built over pepperoni pizzas on a Friday night. Managers over-corrected, hoping that charm could make them “one of the gang”, “down with the kids”. 

Unfortunately for Captain Cool, this leadership style doesn’t work in the coronavirus era. With companies like Twitter announcing indefinite working-from-home policies, it’s clear that the modern corporate environment has changed for good. 

Leaders need to adapt, and sadly a cult of personality no longer works. It’s hard to be virtually charismatic, especially when your face freezes halfway through a motivational speech on Zoom. 

By the same token, leaders can’t rely on being friends with their teams. Employees won’t be as forthcoming when you’re separated by a screen. Depending on personal relationships is lazy, sloppy leadership. It will be exposed in the months ahead.

Which begs the question a lot of my clients are asking right now: what will the leader of the 2020s look like? If the scary boss went out the window last century, and the best friend boss isn’t fit for the modern era, what’s next?

The answer is simple — which doesn’t mean it’s easy. Leaders need to be consistent communicators. They need to prioritise transparency over being either liked or feared. Clear, honest communication skills treat your audience with the respect they deserve. 

A good example of this is the stark contrast between how the British and New Zealand governments have handled communicating around Covid-19. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern talked about going “hard and fast”, implementing a clear, severe, and unapologetic strategy. Being liked was very far down her priority list, but people respected her for that. 

By contrast, the UK government treated the pandemic like a PR crisis, obfuscating to try to keep the public on side. Opinion polls show this hasn’t worked.

Of course, in either the political or corporate worlds, leaders don’t become consistent communicators overnight. But there are tangible steps you can take to start the process. 

The first is simple: have recurring one-to-one meetings with your direct reports. Give them sacrosanct status within your calendar, and encourage employees to be as candid as possible. Have these meetings outside the office but not somewhere social. Treat them like adults: instead of beers and pizza, give them honest feedback and a willingness to listen.

When this isn’t possible in person, choose a phone call instead of Zoom. Our collective infatuation with the video-conferencing technology has its dangers. On the phone you have to spell out what you mean (with detailed descriptions of tasks and behaviours). You can’t hide behind gestures and hints, all of which can be easily misinterpreted. You also have more time to pause and think while your listen, without worrying that every facial flicker is being observed.

The workplace is today unrecognisable from January and leaders need to adapt accordingly. Employees don’t want their boss to be their friend, nor an intimidating presence. No fear, no schmoozing, just an open, honest dialogue so they can perform to the best of their ability. 

This is the first step to consistently communicating with the people you lead. In the future economy, nobody is going to notice jackets on the backs of chairs in your home office.

Get City A.M.’s views on what lockdown means for politics and business delivered straight to your inbox every day.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.