How the strongest leaders will develop (and virtually!) during the Pandemic


By Chris Preston

The world is dragging our leaders into uncharted territory – and already the toll is beginning to show. We are hearing more and more from the senior managers on our virtual leadership development and coaching programmes that they, and their peers, are working to the edge of burn-out… or beyond. Some may say this is where they earn their keep, but I doubt any of them were told, at the job interview, that they would need to handle a pandemic. Probably only the WHO candidates got that sort of briefing.

Of course, they are not the only ones, many of us are under huge stress right now and there’s no clear end in sight – the looming threat of a second spike meaning we cannot flight-path back to normality. But back to leaders. Right now they are making some of the toughest choices of their careers, which are literally life or death in some instances. We need them to make the right calls and to be there to keep doing so – they need support, they need it damn quick and organisations who invested early in replacing face to face development with virtual development, virtual coaching support and more for their leaders will reap the rewards in the coming weeks and months.

Virtual development for leaders and what effective looks like in the current reality

Over the last few years there has been a hockey-stick growth curve towards on-demand, online learning content. It’s economical, increasingly of high quality, and can be refreshed very quickly. Does it work? Mostly, is my conclusion and, when applied correctly is a great way of creating the foundations for individual growth. Is it what leaders need? That’s more debatable. 

Let me talk about baking for a moment, to bring to life the challenge. We have two ways to learn, and I term them ‘book & baking’ (don’t judge yet). When we cook, we usually start with a cookbook – learning the basics of a recipe – ingredients, preparation, timings etc. Read enough cookbooks and you become a theoretical chef.

But, you also have to put the learning into practice, and this is the second way we develop any skill. Now we are exposed to the ‘art’ of cookery – actually doing it. Then we realise it’s not as easy – burnt or soggy cakes abound. Baking, like any practical learning, is an iterative process – we take feedback and advice from others on how to improve the skill. 

Both are needed – with just one you go hungry, with just the other, you end up with far more failures in the trash bin.

And, right now, leaders need that second element. They are deep in the woods of this current mess, and it’s a lonely, scary place to be. The most effective ones are those that are casting around for advice, feedback, ideas and course-corrections. Therefore, the most vital three leadership development interventions for our senior managers right now are the ones that give them that input (and can be done totally virtually) – coaching, mentoring and peer review.

Making a plan for the three critical virtual leadership development support elements:

  • Give every senior / key leader a coach for the coming months, and be part of the initial conversation to set the agenda around the support they will need (this is something we always try and feature – the initial trio conversation is critical for success)
  • Arrange a series of leadership development interventions with people who talk a lot of sense. It could be a 30 minute chat with a subject matter expert, or a masterclass from a respected business leader. We are being inundated with requests to provide rich content for leaders right now – so don’t starve yours
  • Buddy leaders and managers up, and give them a structured approach to supporting each other (think: action learning, positive critical, problem solving) – really make it fly by asking them to regularly share their outputs and learnings with others. This is a vital part of ongoing leadership development. 

The critical role of conversation in virtual leadership development

There will always be a role for e-content – this is not about saying it adds no value – any course of action needs a plan. But what’s critical is to turn up access to people that talk a lot of sense. These can be internal or external and come from a wide pool of backgrounds. And, because we are looking for conversations, they totally lend themselves to a virtual situation.

In the past, having these interventions remotely via a call or video-call has felt ‘second best’. Now, with the whole world Zooming (other platforms are available), it’s suddenly seen as the standard way to converse. The only thing stopping leaders from seeking out these sources of challenge and inspiration will be… pride.

Yes, pride. As simple as it sounds, only leaders who can step aside from their egoes and ask for help will be the ones that get through this situation successfully (read: with themselves and their organisations intact). Pride is the achilles heel of resilience – ‘standing firm and resolute’ when the world actually needs you to flex and change shape. It’s why mighty oaks fall during a hurricane, yet palm trees just shed a few fronds. 

I remember working with a senior leader in Sony a number of years ago and, during a very tough situation, he was asked for guidance on what to do next. The room went silent and everyone looked at him with anticipation (me included). This highly respected executive paused in thought, took a deep breath and told us exactly what to do: “I have no idea,” he said. “So let’s find someone who does, and listen to them.” Cue one stunned room. But we did, and the advice they gave worked.

So, if you are a leader who is presenting an iron-clad exterior whilst desperately reading the ‘How to…’ book under the bed covers then you are far more likely to fail. But, if you are being open, humble and asking for help, you are going to make it. Keep going – keep ‘baking’ and asking people how it tastes.

Find out more about our virtual leadership development programmes or get in touch with the team to discuss your requirements.