Leadership in a pandemic: the implications for HR and talent development managers

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​While the desperate human consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic unfold, the HR profession is charged with reimagining how it interacts with a business landscape that has perhaps been forever reworked

McKinsey authors have recently identified five stages of navigating toward post-pandemic organisation and operation (the 5Rs). Using this framework we see how HR leaders can provide support to their organisations: responding to urgent, unpredictable and possibly transformative business circumstances.

So what tools can practitioners apply for leading in this crisis, making sense of the uncertainty and taking a proactive role in response?

1. Resolve: ‘Knowing what to do is not enough’

While HR leaders focus on making decisions to develop near-term responses, they do so in the absence of surety, data and precedence. However, they must generate confidence in choices and gain the support and resolve of others to work toward an agreed future outcome.

While organisational vision and mission may be challenged by a new context and a need for business survival, values should provide an anchor for decision-making in times when all else is unfamiliar or unprecedented.

During disruption and crisis HR leaders should be bastions for company values that steadfastly anchor principles such as behaviour, character and culture.

2. Resilience: ‘A reflection of leadership’

While McKinsey indicates that the economic impact “could be the biggest in nearly a century”, near-term responses of maintaining a viable business are a priority. When crisis responses incur profound costs to people and communities, such as temporary lay-offs, redeployment or loss of employment, those making decisions must act with humility and human compassion.

HR, therefore, must act compassionately, honestly and fairly. And where human emotion was once managed out of the leadership equation, HR must now support a new paradigm with effective behaviour modelling as well as providing supportive ongoing leadership development for others within this revised management paradigm.

3. Return: ‘The new ‘business as usual’

HR leaders must consider what organisational life looks like post-pandemic. They should reflect on talent acquisition as people move roles, leave jobs and seek new work. Individuals will make decisions about the value of their capabilities.

Those that have been treated well, and who have retained trust in and a connection to their employer, are more likely to remain loyal. Others may take their capabilities elsewhere.

For those sectors experiencing talent shortages pre-pandemic, the labour landscape may now change and HR must be prepared to move fast to secure their own talented employees before competitors do and take advantage of an evolving candidate landscape.

4. Reimagination: ‘Recognising the value of diverse voices’

Disproportionate success will be afforded to organisations which re-envision their value to consumers, their communities and their people. HR leaders must navigate with an inclusive approach.

This means giving value to voices that may not have been previously heard: those who want to work differently, those who want access to greater opportunity but who may have been locked out due to gender, disability, neurodiversity or social background and those who bring different, more creative, status quo-challenging ideas.

If there was ever a place for effective inclusive practices, it is now and in organisations which seek to innovate and truly embed inclusivity as principle.

5.Reform: ‘Is the ‘old normal’ worth keeping?’

HR leaders must consider which bits of the ‘old normal’ they want to replicate. While recognising the tragic human and immense economic costs, this pandemic-induced schism will bring about a profound restructuring of thinking. Practitioners must consider what part of the ‘business as usual’ they would like to keep.

Circular economies, revised social contracts, expansive stakeholder-based organisation and examining the displacement of labour due to automation and other technological advances are perhaps in sharper focus.

HR as a suite of practices must flex with technology and human engagement for reformed notions of productivity, inclusion, sustainability and innovation.

Dr Theresa Simpkin is associate professor and programme director of the Senior Leadership Degree Apprenticeship – Executive MBA at the University of Nottingham

This piece appears in the May/June 2020 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk
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