4 lessons for leaders in 2022

London Business School’s Leadership Institute shares key advice for effective and authentic leadership in the year ahead


1. Take a walk in their shoes and cultivate empathy in a hybrid world

Herminia Ibarra, Charles Handy Professor of Organisational Behaviour; Professor of Organisational Behaviour; Chair, Organisational Behaviour Faculty

Your ability to connect authentically with the people you work with matters. When participants in a panel, which I moderated for the World Economic Forum’s Jobs Reset Summit, were asked one year ago what is the top quality needed in leaders today, over seventy percent said “empathy”. That’s because new ways of working are evolving rapidly, requiring constant learning. Relentless disruption, in the absence of a sense of connection and caring, as psychologists have argued, can threaten people’s confidence, effectiveness and wellbeing, shutting down learning just when it is needed most.

“Empathy will go a long way towards increasing your and your people’s satisfaction” 

Empathy is the basis for human connection, it promotes growth and change by sparking the feelings of interpersonal support that are necessary for taking risks. As such, it plays an important role in much of what we aim to accomplish as leaders. But can empathy be learned? While some people are naturally more empathetic than others, the answer in short is, yes, with practice and feedback, and with the motivation to persevere. Use these three proven ways to cultivate empathy:

  • Listen attentively: Be present when you are talking with others. Put the phone away; pay attention to their body language; and focus on what they are saying, rather than on formulating how you’re going to reply.
  • Open up: Make yourself vulnerable by sharing some of your most important beliefs and life experiences. Receive empathy yourself and take notice of how it affects you.
  • Practise curiosity: Never assume that you know what people are thinking and feeling. Always ask, and use open-ended questions. Especially when it comes to those who seem most different to you – find out about their lives and perspectives.

Many of us are out of practice when it comes to empathy, and our workplaces are fraying for it. As the pace of work in a new hybrid landscape continues to intensify, we are all tasked with doing more with less. Where will we find the time to engage with people more intensely, many managers ask me? Sadly, the cost of forfeiting high-quality human connections is only getting higher. Although the data is still coming in on the so-called “great resignation”, how quickly the notion captured our imagination speaks volumes about the current state of affairs. In this trying environment, cultivating your sense of empathy will go a long way towards increasing your, and your people’s, satisfaction with and engagement in the necessary work of reinventing our organisations.

2. Embrace the new normal with flexibility, resilience and belief in your people

Randall S Peterson, Professor of Organisational Behaviour; Academic Director, Leadership Institute

The pandemic is not over yet. We are living in the ‘new normal’ of variants and waves of covid. As managers this means we need to remain flexible and continue to be resilient, by looking after:

  1. Our physical health, by taking sensible health precautions and not burning out.
  2. Our sense of identity and not becoming something we do not want to be, such as a workaholic or someone frightened of the world.
  3. Our sense of belonging, where we stay connected to the people and places that matter to us (family, friends, and important organisations).
“Let's prioritise finding the time to refresh ourselves and give space to our people to do the same”

So, let's prioritise finding the time to refresh ourselves and give space to our people to do the same. To win the long-game we need to encourage others to take time away from work in order to reconnect and rest. We need to promote a sustainable pace and ways of working that do not burn people out, and we must commit to go beyond psychological safety to give our people a sense of belonging in our organisations. Believe in your people, give them a sense of value, and build a learning culture where the focus is on the team to continuously improve how it works.”

3. Balance work that is important with work that is urgent

Laura Giurge, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow of Organisational Behaviour; Dan Cable, Professor of Organisational Behaviour; Pier Vittorio Mannucci, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour

The pressure to respond to emails as soon as they land in your inbox, whilst also having to complete pressing tasks such as preparing high-quality, creative presentations, is a tension felt by every leader. Finding equilibrium between important and urgent work is vital, because knowledge is the primary source of competitive advantage, and creating high-quality work in a knowledge economy requires uninterrupted time and focused attention.

Far too often, it can feel easier and more efficient to tick off tasks that demand an immediate, specific response, such as responding to a colleague’s frantic email and immediately solving a problem, compared to working on something long-term or open-ended, but potentially more important, such as a new project that could improve future clients’ experiences. The result is many of us spend most of our time pursuing urgent tasks rather than doing our most valuable work, which can be both demotivating and counterproductive for performing to our strengths and expanding our skills.

In a recent study, we tested a time-crafting intervention that gives employees the freedom to personalise their work days by carving out time free of distractions that can be better used to focus on important tasks. The intervention was introduced by leaders at a global consumer goods company as a new way of working and conducted in a six-week field experiment during the initial months of Covid-19. The study found employees experienced a decrease in burnout and an increase in perceived work contributions.

If you want to feel better about your work contributions and protect your wellbeing, here are steps you can adopt for yourself and, as a leader, introduce to your employees:

  1. Use a 30-minute weekly check-in session to make a list of all current and forthcoming work tasks, organising them in terms of urgency (e.g., an email task) and importance (e.g., a strategic planning presentation).
  2. Allocate and book time with yourself to dedicate to important work, ideally two consecutive hours, for the next four days. Within each session, include a maximum of two projects, tasks, or activities that you want to work on during those hours.
  3. Follow the plan each week, without distractions during the important work time (no phone, email, WhatsApp, or the like unless it’s needed for the task).

4. Exercise the three Cs and grow cross-functional integration

Nader Tavassoli, Professor of Marketing; Academic Director of the Leadership Institute; Academic Director of the Hive

The 2021 CMO Survey UK saw Brexit and the pandemic contribute, on average, to a 10% sales drop, a 3% contraction in marketing jobs, and a 17% reduction in marketing spend. In parallel, 73% of marketing leaders reported an increase in the importance of promotion in their organisation, with around 50% transforming their go-to-market strategies and 80% investing in better digital customer interfaces. In other words, marketing leaders were charged to do more with less, while trying to help their organisations adapt to truly seismic shifts in customer preferences and behaviour.

“Functional leaders need to engage in cross-functional perspective taking and traverse language barriers”

Marketing leaders are optimally positioned to explore emerging market opportunities to unlock growth during these challenging times – and, 78% of CEOs expect them to do just that (McKinsey, 2021). They are uniquely trained to gain deep market insight into demand-generating growth, and they must scale up rather than down their investments into market sensing, in the face of cost cutting. They must also energise the organisation with a growth mindset by viscerally bringing to life new opportunities.

Marketing leaders tend to have the most holistic view of the customer journey, and are well positioned to help the organisation be agile and effectively exploit new opportunities. This requires marketing leaders to hone the three invaluable cross-functional integration skills (Pellathy, et al., 2019) to align the often-siloed activities within R&D, IT, operations, logistics, sales, customer service and the like. For some marketing leaders this can represent nascent territory.

  • Collaborate by setting common goals and objectives. Marketing leaders can achieve this by working up from moments-that-matter along the customer journey and agreeing on function-relevant service standards and evaluative metrics at each.
  • Coordinate by managing the flow of operational activities in the delivery of a seamless customer experience. Ideally, functional leaders synchronise planning cycles and specify cross-functional contingencies.
  • Communicate the reciprocal exchange of information to support collective decision making and action. Functional leaders need to engage in cross-functional perspective taking and traverse language barriers in order to gain mutual understanding. The same vocabulary that efficiently facilitates communications within business functions tends to represent the Tower of Babel for cross-functional integration efforts.
UK marketing leaders can register here to participate in the 2022 CMO Survey

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