As corporate affairs, communications, and marketing professionals, you have been trained to “run a series of sprints”, however you are now “sprinting a marathon”! In this context of increasing uncertainty, disruption, and change, maintaining your professional currency requires careful management of your energy and focus.
2020 began at full-pace for the discipline, with the Australian summer bushfires and preceding Royal Commission into financial services, followed by aged care, with many leaders and functions at a stretch well before the arrival of COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a crisis like no other and has bred uncertainty at a scale most leaders have never seen before. Communications professionals remain at the forefront of ongoing organisational responses across the world. Ensuring today’s leaders and their teams have the coping mechanisms, resilience, and stamina to sustain their wellbeing and performance is critical.
Global leadership coach, Julie Birtles from BeyondExcellence, and leading reputation executive search specialist, Anna Whitlam from Teneo led a discussion last week with professionals on how we can sustain ourselves during this enduring period of uncertainty. Commtract’s Executive Director, Vanessa Liell moderated the insightful discussion.
Julie and Anna came together at the beginning of the year to support leaders as COVID-19 hit, and over the past few months have worked with executives globally across a range of sectors to unleash the potential of their people to improve individual and collective performance.
Interestingly, research shows human beings are calmer anticipating pain than we are uncertainty. According to Julie and Anna, very few leaders have the skills and conﬁdence to navigate the increasing complexity, uncertainty, disruption, and large-scale accelerated change of this time. While leadership development has grown into a significant global industry, traditional approaches to executive development have failed to keep up with the dramatic pace of change and disruption leaving leaders ill-equipped in uncertain times.
“We are in unchartered waters, which creates significant uncertainty. To thrive in this environment we need to adapt,” said Julie.
As strategic advisors, Julie and Anna have been successful in identifying and shaping a new generation of leaders across the globe, which they refer to as “Chief Sensemakers”. This centres on developing the ways of thinking, capability and judgment needed to lead through unprecedented volatility and respond to the DNA of disruption.
Developmental psychologists agree that what differentiates leaders is not so much their philosophy of leadership, their personality, or their style of management. Rather, their internal meaning-making capacity, which shapes how they interpret and react to their surroundings.
In fact, it is estimated only 5% of leaders have the capacity to both “sense make and make sense” of systemic complexity and to lead transformational change. To compound the issue, few of these leaders appreciate the potency of the way they think, lead and catalyse change, making it hard to find and learn from them. The good news is that this capability can be cultivated to foster a generation of leaders with the ability to renew and reinvent themselves and their organisations in significant ways.
Julie and Anna have identified a cluster of these leaders in our profession. This is not mirrored across other disciplines that Julie has worked with. Given the sophistication of the way these leaders think, Julie and Anna predict that we will see Chief Sensemakers and future CEOs emerge from the reputation world.
Disruption and Mindset
“The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence, it is to act with yesterday’s logic.” Peter Drucker
In the face of disruption, Julie, and Anna challenge professionals to really think about today’s “new normal”, how you can adapt your mindset and how as an individual you are delivering impact.
The key, they insist, is to cease holding onto what we once had and to open our minds to embracing new ways of thinking, working, and creating value. Many professionals constantly find themselves needing to do what Julie and Anna describe as “busy work” and many are still trying to work the way they did prior to COVID-19.
This starts with interrogating where are you spending your time. Challenge your productivity and think through where you are putting your effort over the course of a day, which may unearth some interesting patterns.
And then think about how you might be able to create greater value and impact. This often means ruthless prioritisation in determining what is important and what is not. For example, if you could only work 3 productive hours a day, what would you dedicate your time doing?
“Being vigilant in nurturing a nimble, inclusive mindset will help you to navigate the wild swings of the exponential age.” Pascal Finnette
In digital terms, it is estimated that we have leapfrogged 5 – 10 years during COVID-19. As a result, Julie and Anna believe we must look at what effect that is having on our discipline and how we can strengthen our toolkits in order to protect our mindset, energy and impact.
They challenge us to think about our own currency. Ask yourself, how do I remain relevant when the world is changing around me? What can I do to ensure that I am best placed to retain my job or continue to do something that I really enjoy? What can I do now to invest in the gaps in my skill set?
Get to know yourself and your core beliefs and values and considering the pace of change, understand your gaps, what are your strengths and how do they play into what is in demand?
Our rapid shift to operating online has enhanced our access to further education and training, however at the same time organisations are reducing professional development budgets.
Julie and Anna insist that professionals now need to take greater responsibility for your own skills development and to put yourself in a much better position moving forward.
“Man must cease attributing his problems to his environment and learn again to exercise his will – his personal responsibility.” Albert Einstein
Flexibility is another major factor professionals must consider. COVID-19 has been an extraordinary catalyst for change, and we are shifting to working in a much more agile and flexible way. Given the changing needs of the workforce, now’s a time to be open to different ways of operating.
Julie and Anna believe there is an assumption within the discipline that professionals are well networked. However, in reality professionals spend the vast majority of their time networking internally.
As communications and marketing professionals, leaders rely on your knowledge and judgement from the outside work, to synthesize information and provide valuable judgement and advice.
In a recent article, the Harvard Business Review identified the four characteristics that distinguish successful networkers – “efficient, nimble, boundary spanning and energy balanced".
As we move into a world with greater uncertainty, networking has never been more important, and Julie and Anna recommend investing time on a daily basis to nurture and grow your networks. This can seem like an overwhelming task when we are stretched, however it can be achieved starting with 15 minutes a day or aiming to build to one new virtual meeting a week. And importantly, mobilise your weak ties — that is, the relationships you have with people you don’t know so well or don’t see very often, in order to maximise your chances of expanding your knowledge. Within this context, consider the diversity quotient of your network and evaluate if this requires work.
“We live in a world that celebrates work and activity, ignores renewal and recovery, and fails to recognise that both are necessary for sustained high performance.” Jim Loehr
Collectively we are sprinting a marathon, however in reality, we’re not made for this pace. When you’re tired and exhausted, it’s difficult to focus and perform effectively. Julie and Anna urge professionals to find your own energy renewal activities or rituals to allow you to centre, calm and reset yourself.
Examine how you build and lose your energy and find a way to encourage yourself to focus on the quality and quantity of your energy. They however caution it’s important to ensure they align to your values and aren’t too rigorous so you can successfully embed them into your daily life.
The insights shared were gained as a result of Julie and Anna’s leadership work with companies in Australia, Asia, USA and Europe as COVID-19 progressed through 2020. Key to their findings was the overwhelming need for new forms of leadership to guide organisations through this significant evolution. The role of corporate affairs leaders is central – and their ability to make sense of complexity, identify and invest in their skills, build resilience through personal growth and develop purposeful relationships fundamental to creating impact.