By Joiwind Ronen, Partner and Managing Director, Wheelhouse Group
Over the last 18 months, we’ve all been stretched in new and often uncomfortable ways. As leaders we have struggled with the balance of being authentic and professional in a time of such challenge in our workplaces.
We are also trying hard to support our teams and the people that come to work each day willing to help us reach our shared vision and important organizational goals. We recognize that many of the ways to connect aren’t readily available anymore. Grabbing coffee with a team member, a welcome lunch for a new employee, watercooler catch-ups and hallway conversations have mostly disappeared.
So how do we lead in a way that provides connection and motivation? Many of the stories we heard through our Stories of Change initiative were about the importance of authentic leadership – now more than ever. And their advice is backed by research. According to a pre-pandemic Harvard Business Review article, employees’ perception of authentic leadership serves as the strongest predictor of job satisfaction and can have a positive impact on work-related attitudes and happiness.
So how can we be more authentic leaders in pandemic times? Here are three practical ways to do it:
Bring your whole self to work
As a working mom with six people in my house full-time (until just a few days ago when DC schools finally reopened), I have chosen to be more candid with my teams. I am more expressive about what is going on and what I am juggling – knowing you can’t usually hide what is happening behind you in a Zoom meeting! This authenticity – and yes, even vulnerability – allows me to be more relaxed at work and gives permission to my team and peers to do the same.
In some ways this feels like a return to the basics. How I was earlier in my career before I thought I had to remove so much space between me and my direct reports in order to be seen as professional. But now, later in my career, I find that by modeling this behavior I can create an environment in which my staff feels comfortable to do the same.
I have seen firsthand that when my team shares what they are going through, they are more able to ask for what they need. This helps the team function better and allows them to continue to be productive and flexible
Know your staff
One of the stories shared by Judith Zawatsky, Assistant Commissioner for the Office of Systems Management within GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service, is the importance of proactively reaching out to staff even if they don’t directly report to you. When Covid hit, she scheduled one-on-one meetings with all 70 people working in her office. Judith wanted to understand each of their situations, needs and circumstances. Through this process she reported, “I now know the people I’m working with at an authentic level and not just a product level, as well as bringing those voices to the table.”
In addition to an authentic connection, Judith was able to hear ideas and perspectives that might have been filtered in the past and voices that might not have been heard in a typically more hierarchal work environment. You can listen to her full story in this video clip from our Story Jam video.
This is a lesson to take with us past this pandemic. When we know our team members, we have access to ideas and insight we might not have accessed before. Meeting one-on-one may not be practical, depending on the size of your team, but creating ongoing opportunities to know people at different levels is key. For example, a consistent drop-in coffee chat or regular office hours is a great way to connect with your team.
Engage your teams
Leaders often rely on reporting structures to carry and disburse information throughout the organization, punctuated by quarterly all-team meetings. Many organizations have recreated this approach online.
What I have seen from our Stories of Change contributors is that many leaders are finding it more important than ever to create opportunities for group connection and group experiences. At Wheelhouse Group we have created weekly opportunities including lunch and learns, group exercise classes, cooking tutorials and virtual wine tastings.
We have also learned that baking these types of activities into existing meetings can be a great way to create shared experiences. As we build meeting agendas for ourselves and for clients it is important that, in addition to business topics, we leave space for discussion about what is on people’s mind. Do they need new or different supports to accomplish team goals? Are there new approaches or tools they have learned about? This keeps meetings fresh, memorable and encourages active participation by people that may not have contributed in the past.
Leaders don’t necessarily have all the answers but being authentic with our teams creates an environment where people are able to focus on important goals while also supporting each other. Do you have tips and advice? Share your stories with us!