Heading into 2021, business leaders and employees face lingering uncertainty and a variable work environment. With many people working remotely—and parents overseeing their children's education in tandem—nurturing a positive organizational culture is both more important and more difficult than ever before. Honesty, transparency, and integrity are crucial to maintaining trust and supporting employee morale. From articulating values and vision to adapting performance reviews, leading effectively through these challenges will require flexibility and foresight. In this Expert Roundtable, four of BTG's independent executives share advice and best practices for leadership amid today's uncertainty.
Meet Our Experts
Commercial strategy and operations executive
Executive consultant in strategy, change management, and culture development
Executive advisor on digital transformation, AI, and cybersecurity
Life sciences commercialization and business strategy consultant
Q: What will employees need most from business leaders in 2021?
John Parkinson: Confidence, optimism, truthfulness about uncertainty, accessibility, clarity of purpose, focus, priorities… It’s going to be tough to be an effective leader.
Tony Keller: The year 2021 will require a business leader that can stand boldly and say, “Here is what we know, here is what we don’t know—and by the way, we are open to all ideas on how to address it.” The business champions of 2021 will be the leaders who provide honesty and humility to their team members and welcome their collective ideas, support, and patience as we navigate uncharted waters.
David Davidovic: Trust! Business leaders have had to adjust their expectations and ways of working without the benefit of in-person meetings, interactions, and oversight. In the first few months of the pandemic, many business leaders tried to replicate the office conditions with many check-ins, team meetings, and such. The future will still need some of these but not in order to replicate the old ways—instead, capitalizing on new ways of working and trusting your people is at the center.
At the same time, employees need to hear and be on board with clear expectations regarding business results and compliance, i.e., “doing business the right way when no one is in the room.”
Laura Weinstein: I believe that employees will need clear articulation of vision, values, and what success looks like in times of uncertainty. Now more than ever, employees need guideposts to help them through a time of ambiguity. As leaders, the best way to provide this is through identifying and articulating your own vision and values and providing clarity on what success means.
Employees are also looking for meaningful and rewarding work environments. I think compassionate leadership will be critical in the year ahead so that employees feel connected and engaged with their work. Leaders should incorporate gratitude and compassion into their tone, interactions, and meetings in order to model that times of stress and uncertainty don’t have to equal antagonistic environments.
“ Leaders should incorporate gratitude and compassion into their tone, interactions, and meetings in order to model that times of stress and uncertainty don’t have to equal antagonistic environments. ”
— Laura Weinstein
Q: How can business leaders best tend to and nurture company culture in this time of widespread remote work?
David Davidovic: Too often, business leaders believe—or at least seem to—that communications alone serve to keep people engaged; after a while, these just sound like repetitive platitudes. Culture is not a memo. Culture is built and maintained in multiple ways acting synergistically. These include assurances about job stability, a common mission that is consistently applied, trust, resources, rewards and recognition, learning opportunities, developmental pathways, and more.
John Parkinson: Allocate more time to listening to employees’ concerns and challenges. Tell the story consistently, sure, but listen more.
Laura Weinstein: The first thing leaders can do is ask employees to weigh in on this. Everyone has different needs during this time, and employees face a range of challenges at home. No two experiences are the same. Employees’ ability to nurture culture through extracurricular activities likely varies based on their home commitments and demands. Leaders should engage employees in how to shape the company’s culture in a meaningful and authentic way. This will lend legitimacy to the effort and will also prove more motivating for employees.
In addition, leaders need to recognize that maintaining the corporate culture does not equal trying to replicate all the in-person experiences over Zoom. Most employees were done with the Zoom happy hours by June. Culture is a tone set from the top and permeates through all facets of the business.
Tony Keller: Nurturing the organizational culture relies upon three distinct actions (whether in an office cubical setting or working remotely—the trick is that office settings provide some of these opportunities more naturally):
- Non-agenda communication: The key to non-agenda communication is the discussion of items that impact the work environment. This could be work-related or personal work related.
- Personal touchpoints: These are usually things that people have either in common, sympathy for, or friendly competitiveness about. In an office setting, these touchpoints are littered throughout our communications. In the remote work environment, these can be somewhat “maintained” (if they were well established), but the leader needs to foster these communications and, in the event of new team members, engage them on non-agenda topics to create these touchpoints.
- Thoughtful expressions: One of my favorite quotes regarding organizational culture comes from Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” It is my belief that the single greatest skill of a leader is the ability to make personal touchpoints and then use them to provide thoughtful expressions that build team members up. I have seen leaders take broken or distant organizational cultures and teach fellow leaders how to build up team members and encourage unlimited personal growth by providing thoughtful expressions on personal touchpoints.
Q: A recent survey showed that 40% of employees don’t feel appreciated for work they’ve done during the pandemic. How can business leaders ensure that employees receive recognition and effective professional development when face-to-face interaction is limited or nonexistent?
David Davidovic: I am surprised the survey number is that low; I would have expected it to be higher, and maybe it’s still early in this area. One of the most important rewards that people want and respond to is learning and development. However, this is not simply giving people the opportunity to attend courses and webinars; these get tedious after a while and are of limited effectiveness. The best way to learn is via experiential learning, i.e., doing things. Employees should be given new (real) challenges to solve, to try new things, to stretch their comfort levels, and to teach others.
John Parkinson: Some of this is making sure that the right opportunities for growth are in place and being used. Recognition and reward systems probably need a hard look, but I am not sure that “I’m not appreciated” is always an accurate analysis. Probably as much an indication of poorly set expectations as an actual lack of appreciation.
Tony Keller: The answer to this question rests heavily in my answer to the prior question, but with a few additional attributes. Just as leaders should be looking for touchpoints and moments of thoughtful expression, there is also the need to purposely identify successes and celebrate them with one another in both office and remote work settings. One of my clients provides a twice-monthly segment in their Zoom calls for sharing of successes and bragging about others (rather than ourselves). Each of these shared triumphs are then celebrated on the phone call and minutes of the meetings. By the way, these celebrated accomplishments often then become “touchpoints.”
Additionally, around professional development, I always recommend that leaders perform their performance evaluations in a certain manner (more on that later), but at the end of the performance evaluation, I recommend a goal setting session and an important part of the goal setting is the team member’s identification of “what the leader can do to assist in their professional development.” I encourage leaders to keep this list handy for each employee and regularly visit whether they are doing their part to grow their fellow team member. Furthermore, if you really want to build on this, then the leader will provide quarterly accountability to the team for their work in the achievement of their identified goals of professional development for their team members.
Laura Weinstein: Most leaders gravitate toward compensation to recognize employees. No one will ever turn away money; however, survey after survey shows that what employees really want is credit for work, to be included in decision making, to feel ownership over the future, and to have their voices heard. Knowing that, leaders can make sure they are involving their entire team in strategic discussions and decisions in order to engage them. In parallel, leaders can ensure that the entire leadership team is committed to reaching out and connecting with high-potential employees for brief virtual meetings. Listening tours can also make sure that employees are heard, seen, and listened to.
For professional development, there are still lots of opportunities to tap employees to participate in virtual leadership workshops or mentoring programs. One-on-one mentoring is a successful way to ensure professional development when traditional structures are missing.
Q: Many people working remotely report that they feel they have to “always be on” and ultimately suffer burnout. How can leaders help their teams set constructive boundaries while remaining accessible and engaged?
Laura Weinstein: This is a tough one and, admittedly, I haven’t seen anyone do a stellar job of this. Modelling boundaries for responding to emails and taking time off for vacation are nice in theory but are hard to implement in fast-paced, competitive businesses. The truth is that many employees were “always on” long before quarantine. Some of the measures that I have seen companies employ include mandating no meetings during the lunch hour, no meetings on Friday afternoons, no meetings before 8 a.m. or after 5 p.m., and requesting no emails after 10 p.m.
John Parkinson: Setting a good example and clear expectations and then monitoring employee behavior would help.
David Davidovic: This question is a very common and important one these days. We are dealing with three periods in time:
- First three months after the onset of the virtual office, where there was a temptation to fully replicate the eight hours (and more) of work in the office,
- The period we are in now, where there is greater comfort in letting people have more control over their time, letting teams figure out when to meet and why, and having less frequent “check-ins,” and
- The new normal where people are trusted more to figure out the schedules and ways of working that make more sense to them to get their work done.
Tony Keller: Having a non-agenda discussion with each team member about the subject of burnout is a perfect way to generate touchpoints and provide thoughtful expressions. These conversations are likely to yield discussions of outside issues, boundary challenges, fears, etc. Leaders should keep track of these discussions and follow up in a caring manner as to build communication, trust, and organizational culture with team members.
Q: Any thoughts on how leaders should approach performance reviews differently this year given all of the challenges they and their teams faced in 2020? (How can they get a full picture of their employees’ performance, and are there any special considerations they should make during this time of uncertainty?)
John Parkinson: This is a very good question and a hotly debated topic. I am not sure we have a good answer, and any answer is probably situationally coupled. We’ve done some work for clients who are thinking that they should basically not do a formal performance review but instead ask employees “What could we have done better?” and “What held you back this past year?”
David Davidovic: This will depend on a company’s culture and practices for goal setting. If goals are based on results, then it is easier because the results will speak for themselves. Of course, these will have to be adjusted to account for new conditions. If leaders are not flexible in updating goals before the performance review cycle, then the whole process will be meaningless and demotivating.
In companies where goals are activity-driven, then it will be harder, because it’s likely that most of the activities in goals simply did not happen. Hopefully leaders will be thoughtful and flexible in their approach.
I would also recognize and reward the efforts that people made to adjust to the current environment and to grow from it. These include alternative and creative ways of working, efforts to remain engaged, team-contribution behaviors, and capitalization on learning opportunities.
Tony Keller: How to implement effective performance reviews are a book-worthy topic; however, I will share my recommendations with limited comment. I recommend to clients that team members complete their own performance reviews (on the same company form) in draft for the leader to review, edit, comment, discuss, etc. I also recommend that the performance reviews include three other important components:
- Goals: Identify goals for the next year by the team members
- Leader Actions: What actions the leader can take to assist in the accomplishment of these goals?
- Leader Growth: What are two things the leader does well and should continue and two things the leader should consider doing differently? (The leader must handle this with grace, non-debate, non-excuses, and careful listening. If done well, this will be one of the most powerful “trusting” exercises that a leader can complete with their team members. Leaders that argue, provide excuses or interrupt, would have been better advised to avoid this component).
The expectation should be that the team members are provided an opportunity to self-reflect on their own performance (a critical learning tool in an exceptional culture) and provide that in writing. Only after the leader receives a fair review from the self-reflection process, should the leader provide their own thoughts and comments to the performance review. Once these edits and thoughts are complete, I recommend that the review is sent back to the team member and they are asked to review the comments and “when they are ready in the next 10 days” to schedule a call to discuss the review and the list of three items above.
Laura Weinstein: Performance reviews this year should incorporate qualitative as well as quantitative measures. Qualitative measures can include recognizing and rewarding employees for helping other team members, donating time to efforts outside of their role, and maintaining morale and integrity during this time. While it may seem that these aren’t worthy of recognition on the level of business performance, these are the traits that strengthen the fabric of corporate cultures and were in short supply during an extraordinarily trying year.
To start, every leader should incorporate gratitude into reviews, regardless of business performance. Employees showed up during an unprecedented time that placed numerous personal demands on them in addition to their professional demands. Expressing gratitude for the resilience, perseverance, and focus they demonstrated this year will be critical.
Q: What is your best advice for business leaders as they head into 2021?
Tony Keller: Focus on leading the culture and building the team members, and many of the other issues will either pass or significantly diminish.
John Parkinson: Don’t assume we will go back to the pre-pandemic world. Think about where timely, accurate data can make a difference. What changes are likely? How can you respond?
We’ve also been asked to look at some markets where there are a lot of disadvantaged businesses and to propose strategies for M&A or competitive capture—and how to identify and combat blind spots in technology, organization, and culture.
Tech is going to be a bigger piece of every business going forward. Do you have the right resources and leadership at every level and if not, where can you go for objective advice?
Laura Weinstein: One of the best pieces of advice is something I read in an HBR article by Rob Cross: be intentional in small moments. Cross goes on to write, “focus on how to shape rather than be shaped by all the interactions coming at us today.”
I believe that leaders should focus on the small moments, individual interactions, and relationships in order to nurture employees, and ultimately, drive more engaged and effective teams. It’s the “micro moments” that people remember, and it’s what makes them loyal and committed to their companies and their work.
David Davidovic: “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not turbulence itself, but to act with yesterday’s logic.” - Peter Drucker
“ The business champions of 2021 will be the leaders who provide honesty and humility to their team members and welcome their collective ideas, support, and patience as we navigate uncharted waters. ”
— Tony Keller
Whether you're exploring ways to better support your team or capture new opportunities as they arise, on-demand executive talent can help you adapt and succeed amid uncertainty.