How to lead in a virtual world with your own true voice – a
Blueprint for Future-Fit Leaders

A bridge to our previous article….

What resonated with leaders in our previous article was the dawning realisation that business has a lot in common with the dynamics of our natural world and can hugely benefit from the application of natural sciences. The reason for reiterating this theoretical wisdom is that this scientific and systemic framework, applied in sciences like genetics and biodiversity, continues to be the underlying theme for this second article on leadership.

As you may have gathered, we don’t want to simply follow the pack and write on the more frequently-discussed aspects of leadership, such as empathy, communication and style, as social media channels are already inundated with good articles on these subjects. Our thinking and scientific evidence points to how leadership also needs to be tackled in a systemic manner and through multiple lenses, rather than a single dimension.

We don’t claim to own the theory and are, first and foremost, practitioners in search of actionable change for ourselves and the leaders with whom we work. Our intent is therefore to share both the insight and theory that exist, then overlay this approach with those practical tips and successful coping strategies we have applied or which have been shared with us over the past few months.

The first dynamic, and one that is often overlooked, is the importance of developing a deep understanding of the contextual environment in which any leader or organisation exists. As it is critical in scientific learning, so it is for leaders. By this, we mean that a leadership style needs to become more fluid and remain congruent with its current environmental factors. Given our ever-changing environments, we should look to lay the groundwork for what lies ahead: a shift in environment from the high-intimacy leadership style, which may have been needed for a virtual workplace facing pandemic crises, to a business environment grounded in the reality of a looming recession. For many, the latter will require robust, brave, and authentic discussions around performance – both business and personal – which are likely to be held in hybrid models of virtual and face-to-face settings.

We summarised this in our last article, A Systemic Approach to the Future World of Law, as follows:

“Let us start at the beginning with the most critical wisdom we have gathered: all businesses are unique. They all face a slightly different set of external and internal factors, which provide the context for today’s existence and allow them to thrive in tomorrow’s world. Think about how different penguin breeds have had to adapt to the different environmental ecosystems they cohabit – businesses are no different – what is needed for an Emperor penguin to flourish in Antarctica isn’t what is needed for a penguin on the tip of Southern Africa. Our strong belief is that this thinking is what is needed to support legal leaders and businesses in applying a systemic methodology when determining the most appropriate set of performance levers to be fit for the future of their particular business. This requires leaders to adopt a new paradigm which will be critical in how they envision the future world of work.”

Within this new paradigm, we want to explore some of the key aspects of leadership which will need to evolve for leaders to remain effective in the future world of law.

Let us imagine for a moment that we are the matriarch of a large herd of African elephants which is on the brink of extinction (yes, this might be a bit odd for some… but bear with us!). How would we need to adapt our style to ensure we could lead our species to survive and then thrive, as our environment is encroached upon and the necessities of water and food become increasingly scarce? Yes, nature would move slowly through an evolutionary process; but, if we look at how an elephant population in, say, the Namibian desert has evolved physiologically to survive and breed on an inhospitable barren land, we can infer that humans can also morph and evolve. Our goal would be to lead our teams to find critical water in the heat of summer and migrate on old paths to places which offer the best possibility of food.

So how can we apply this to the legal environment?

Over the past six months, the blurring of boundaries between home and work life has prompted leaders to go back to the fundamentals, reviewing the importance of establishing the leadership voice and tone for what you need today and tomorrow.

Already, the shift to virtual working has brought the challenge of maintaining the ideas, culture and social behaviour of a company and its legal team in a wholly new environment, one in which emotions or personal concerns have become more manifest. Leaders must now consider how your working environments might
need to shift again in dealing with the business impact of an impending recession.

It is this shift for which we believe leaders really need to prepare and there are two key elements to address:

  1. Clarity on the future environmental context – this consists of the ecosystem and challenges of the specific competitive environment you face as a business, plus your chosen regulation and risk tolerance. The key is to map this out and ensure, as a leader and team, those factors that will ensure success are clear. This is then reflected in how the team operates, both at a visible process level but also at a deeper psychological level. Building teams and structuring the organisation to deal with this changing environment is a topic in its own right, which we will leave for another post…
    However, here is some practical guidance you might start to deploy as a leader:
    • Map out the different systems in play across your organisation and its environment.
    • Ensure your teams are connecting with the natural world around them and that ESG goals and intent, especially around social impact and causes, are part of the narrative.
    • Find time to focus internally on the “S” of eSg and, specifically, ethics, human rights, modern slavery and those CSR projects focused on supporting the communities you operate in to thrive.
    • Shift to environmental sustainability by design, i.e. think about product design up front, as opposed to at the end.
    • Run internal sessions to challenge accepted practices and behaviours, e.g. gather all your lawyers together from across a function and ask the directly “are we
    focussing enough on [ethics]?”
    • And, yes, map this out fully to determine the key levers and shifts the organisation and you, as leader, will need to make.
  2. Your essence – within this environmental context, leaders then need to consider both the “why are we in business?” question and “what legacy do we want to leave?”.

Fundamentally, we use the phrase “essence” to describe the mix of strategy, culture and leadership,
so must reflect on how this comes through more authentically as a purpose-led leadership style.

This could be as simple as starting to consider the company’s reputational and brand identity, namely what it might mean for you and your teams to be a member of a particular company. Next, think about how this sense of belonging manifests itself when you are sat at a desk at home, as opposed to with a specific team in a particular building in a single location. Take time to ensure you understand what it means for each member of a diverse team to experience a sense of belonging. Be mindful that home-based work environments present both opportunities and challenges and will differ materially across the team; some will not have a dedicated workspace, some will be caring for family and others may be dealing with domestic abuse.

This question of essence has been further ratchetted up as regulations and corporate governance issues are driving companies to report on ESG, and other purpose-led cultural issues. In fact, as we set out in our previous article, society (our people and customers) are demanding this. Furthermore, our research confirmed that people typically look to their leaders to “do the right thing” in a crisis and that CV19 presented an opportunity like no other to effect longterm, meaningful business change. More importantly, even if anecdotally, it would also appear those companies who went into the crisis with a clear understanding of their values, ethics and purpose have benefited from that underlying infrastructure, which further emphasises the importance of building such a framework before it is needed.

Finally, one of the questions we posed to our esteemed GC panel was whether organisational culture (as an element of essence) risks becoming diluted in a virtual workplace. The consensus was that an inherently strong corporate culture can exist across a remote workforce. However, this boils down to the importance placed on company values and the need for agility; it therefore favours those with an inherent DNA bias for change and disruption. It was acknowledged that culture becomes engrained in organisational DNA through a set of lived values and behaviours which, over time, evolve to become norms and habits. This applies not just inside the organisation but with a focus on the “S” in dealing with ecosystem partners and communities too.

As leaders, it is critical you ensure the company values and behaviours are demonstrably lived and aligned with the essence of your future objectives: a leader’s natural voice and style has to resonate and be totally aligned with this North Star.

What follows are some more practical tips which you might start to deploy and consider using as a leader:

• Reflect on what your business will be known for coming out of this crisis. How will you help your clients and colleagues, and the communities in which you operate?
• Re-articulate the organisational purpose. Ask how best to bring your organisational purpose to life and talk about it within the business (this requires great courage if you are a beacon in the midst of rapacious activity but is generally easier to do when simply reminding people why they work where they work).
• Hold virtual workshops to take the organisation on the journey back to purpose and talk about values and ethics, articulating what we are for / why you work here in the first place as well as the underlying motivation(s), i.e. why do you want to talk about certain issues as a company? Is it to appease a particular market or score points with shareholders, or do you fundamentally believe in these issues?
• Ask hard questions, such as: ‘What is the difference between working for X organisation versus Y organisation in a remote workplace?’ The answer will likely be very different to what you get when working in a company building in a specific location directly alongside other people who work for that company.
• Listen to, and learn from, feedback given by team members when asked about the benefits and challenges of working remotely being cognitive of how diverse your team’s experiences and challenges are, and ensure you understand the context behind the responses.
• Finally, ask “what elements of the company culture and values truly subsist remotely in a way that can be felt and measured?”

Why is this essential for us as leaders?

While certain new strategies and tactics may have proved effective in keeping teams together at the outset of the crisis, this becomes more of a struggle as the situation escalates and people naturally begin to tire. Alongside the issue of allostatic load is how to balance business priorities with the desire to avoid fatigue. The mantra of putting family life first and work second is sustainable only for so long.

Ultimately, you as a leader will be judged not just by what you do but by how you
do it, and by the extent of courage you show in broaching difficult subjects with a degree of
transparency and authenticity. This will resonate with legal professionals, whose deep
sense of ethics is an inherent part of our profession.

Once you have clarity on both your environmental context and essence, the final challenge is how to embed this thinking into your own leadership style. Just as company plans should align with their overall business purpose, so leaders should ask themselves whether they are being authentic in how their actions and words align with their own personal leadership style. This will form the basis of our next article, but the science and panel feedback we received is clear: the more consistent and congruent with the essence of your organisation you are in all you do, the more successful you will be.

This period has been a crisis focussed around people, with a strong focus on wellbeing as well as performance. This has called for more cognitive and empathetic leadership as well as nuanced communication. Just as leaders must see people as people first, people in turn need to see a more personal side from their leaders.

Cognitive leadership (i.e. understanding the environment in which you lead and then applying the appropriate style, tool or skill to the occasion) has never been more important in people management. When making people decisions in a virtual working environment, there is a clear need for inclusive thinking which acknowledges environmental factors and takes individual circumstances into account.

As we prepare to transition from a period of heightened intimacy and personal care to one of economic
recession, you should maintain an open and ongoing dialogue with your teams, based on the organisation and your own North star, in order to equip them to cope with impending change and uncertainty.

As the CV-19 rollercoaster continues and the recession starts to bite, the paramount capability leaders will need is the rare ability to combine a caring leadership persona with one that is objective and business-minded; this will be key to balancing people’s concerns with harsher business realities.

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