Lessons and opportunities: How Covid-19 is improving leadership communications

by Adaora Geiger | 1st May 2020

Leaders are in the spotlight right now. This crisis is the ultimate test as to whether they’ll do the right thing for their employees, customers, and other stakeholders. Their words and actions during this time will be judged long after the pandemic ends. If they step up to the challenge, the result can be a more rewarding communication experience than many leaders ever had – with valuable lessons for the future.

The other day I spoke to the Head of Internal Comms of a global company. We were discussing the launch of a new strategy but like all conversations these days, this one also was framed by Covid-19. Towards the end of our call she said: ‘You know, the coronavirus has also brought opportunities for our communications’.

Her CEO, a former CFO, had never been an avid communicator. He did what was required to keep employees, investors, and other stakeholders informed. But he didn’t really enjoy this part of the job and tended to avoid the limelight if possible. The Covid-19 pandemic has left him no choice but to engage much more than usual with internal and external audiences. And not only is he communicating more frequently; the comms focus during this crisis is at least as much on empathy and reassurance as it is on facts and numbers – another deviation from the previous practice.

Interestingly, he has found this experience rather rewarding. He has gained confidence and a new appreciation for communications. It has made him a better leader. ‘And that’s great news for our strategy launch’, said the Head of Internal Comms.

I love the approach of not only highlighting the challenges, the must-dos, and the pitfalls when it comes to Covid-19 communications. Instead, let’s also look at the opportunities for learning and growing this crisis presents us with.

Opportunity #1: Recognise communication as a core leadership task – not only in times of crisis

Most people in top leadership positions have strategic and agile minds, along with the ambition and professional skills required to be promoted through the ranks. But the higher you climb on that ladder, the more important another skillset becomes: communication. For many, this part of the job doesn’t come naturally.

During a crisis of these dimensions, executives must be at the forefront of all communications, providing guidance and reassurance for their internal and external stakeholders. Many leaders have had no choice but to step out of their comfort zone, communicating relentlessly, and being much more exposed then they would normally want to be.

The one thing executives are often afraid to admit is ‘I don’t know’. With Covid-19, no one knows. There’s no script for what we are going through. In the absence of management consultancy slides with their distinguishable lexicon, leadership communications have become ‘real’. In a pandemic, no one has patience for jargon. This highly complex, fast-paced and uncertain situation requires transparent, concise and empathetic communications.

This is good news – also beyond the coronavirus crisis. Leaders will find that their own experience improves immensely when they communicate with relevance and meaning. The resonance and encouragement many executives receive from their audiences right now may serve as a more general wake-up call to the power of communications.

They don’t have to do it all by themselves. It’s the task of the company’s communicators to strengthen and enable leaders in their role. Corporate comms will provide the tools they need and advise them on tone, content and the right channels to connect with their audiences.

Opportunity #2: Harness the power of your corporate culture – there’s value in values

In the absence of any certainty around what the immediate future holds, it can be helpful to emphasise a common purpose or values that provide direction. This must go beyond rhetoric. Leaders must be prepared to walk their talk if they don’t want to risk sustained damage to their reputation.

But it’s not only the executives of an organisation whose behaviours during the pandemic are being scrutinised. It’s also the people who are the everyday voice and face of a company – manning call centres, dealing with suppliers or serving customers. Anecdotally, I’ve found that actions which pre-coronavirus would have been written off as an individual’s poor attitude – a rude delivery driver, an unhelpful insurance broker – are now seen as representative for the entire organisation: ‘So this is how the company acts during a pandemic’. No doubt, these impressions will last beyond the crisis.

In normal times, leaders often struggle to see the business relevance of so-called ‘soft’ topics. But Covid-19 highlights the importance of building and curating a strong corporate culture. When crisis strikes, no one will go through the corporate guidelines and look up how to act – people will do what feels right. This situation presents an opportunity to review how the current culture serves the company in times of crisis and beyond – if the values that are no doubt written down somewhere actually resonate with people, or if it’s time to define a purpose that creates meaning beyond the shareholders’ perspective.

Now is the time for leaders to identify cultural strengths they want to build on and weaknesses that need to be addressed (at a later date). By linking exemplary behaviours to the company’s purpose, vision or values, they can reinforce desired traits of their corporate culture.

Culture however is organic and often more alive and well at the frontline than in HQ. Corporate comms can provide platforms to celebrate best practices from across the organisation and empower people to share their stories on how they bring company values to life.

Opportunity #3: Listen and learn – the frontline is essential

As we’ve all come to appreciate, it’s not necessarily the best paid workers who turn out to be ‘key’. It’s people who work in factories and supermarkets, who care for the vulnerable or drive delivery vans. Colleagues who are working from home also keep supply chains going, find different ways to connect with customers or onboard new colleagues remotely. In short, everyone will have a relevant experience of what it means to make things work in this new reality.

As companies start to look beyond the crisis and evaluate what all of this means for future ways of organising their businesses, it would be foolish not to pay attention to the lessons learned across the organisation. A reinforced we-are-in-this-together mentality in combination with the normalisation of digital communication tools could also have lasting positive effects on a company’s dialogue culture.

Comms can facilitate this process by creating feedback loops and providing dialogue platforms. Digital tools present huge opportunities to connect different stakeholders. Even though they may bring their own challenges – for instance, virtual events can lack the experience of witnessing an audience’s immediate reaction – these can be more than compensated for if communicators tap into the potentials of digital moderation and polling tools.

Opportunity #4: Trust your people – you’ve got each other’s back

Most executives see their people much less than they used to. Unless they want to check in on their colleagues obsessively (not a good idea, nor is it effective), leaders need to get comfortable with a more hands-off approach. This doesn’t mean that communication should cease. It’s important to keep speaking to with people – individually and as a team – to provide a sense of structure and cohesion.

This means executives will have to adapt their communication behaviours. In normal times, informal discussions and impromptu meetings ensure that colleagues keep up to speed on developments outside their immediate remit. With team members working in isolation, leaders need to create more transparency on structures and processes. Not being able to literally look over everyone’s shoulder, they must enable more autonomy and may have to delegate responsibility. Ultimately, they need to trust their people to do the right thing even if no one’s watching.

Corporate comms, in tandem with HR, can support managers by providing trainings and showcasing tools that facilitate remote teamwork. They can also enable dialogue on best practices and lessons learned within the company’s leadership community.

Of course, as with many other things, Covid-19 is accelerating a development that was already underway before the crisis. Many organisations want to become more agile (at least in parts) to deal with the challenges and opportunities of the digital transformation. This means working more flexibly, creating space for creativity and empowering people to make decisions outside of stifling hierarchical structures.

Even if the current workplace revolution has been involuntary, there’s an opportunity for many businesses to re-evaluate how these new leadership and collaboration practices might enable them to drive their strategic agenda in the long term.

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About the Author

Adaora Geiger

ageiger@maitland.co.uk

Adaora leads our Transformation and Change practice. She is also a specialist in crisis and corporate communications, advising clients over a wide range of sectors and issues, including Healthcare, Finance, Logistics, and Consumer Goods.

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