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Leadership Shifts During the Pandemic

By Rachel Dreyfus

How has Covid-19 influenced leadership over the past few months? Research results show leaders are making changes yielding positive outcomes. Bravo to these senior leaders, a group smart and capable of making big changes! Yet those at the helm have only just begun to formally capture these positive outcomes and ensure they carry forward. How will leaders guarantee these better, more-efficient work habits will continue once the pandemic is controlled?

We were inspired to collaborate on a leadership study with Marijo Bos, Facilitator, and C-suite Thought-partner, President of Bos Advisors, after she conducted a dozen qualitative conversations with her clients about their leadership shifts; conversations which uncovered themes that piqued our curiosity about how extensive these shifts would be. We also wondered whether leaders had put formal practices in place to maintain positive outcomes.

We surveyed 75 global senior leaders in Spring, 2020 from our client base, with a geographic skew toward the USA and Europe, and industry skew toward technology and media.

Most Positive Outcomes from Phase 1 of the Pandemic:

  1. Communications have become more frequent, inclusive of more levels and more compassionate, i.e., “human-centric”
  2. Teamwork has improved, despite the transition to the virtual work environment (and despite suspicion by some about accountability)
  3. Leaders have put aside distractions, freeing them up to do the most important things and correct to a lean operation
  4. Leaders have just begun to formally reflect and capture these positive outcomes

Identifying Leadership Potential

More than 8 in 10 agree with both, “Through the early stages…I urged my team to strengthen relationships across the business” and “I am now more deliberate in building an optimistic outlook for my team.”

Communication shifts were a theme throughout the results and indicate that better teamwork is possible with a shift in communications style and inclusion. Leaders were having more personal and informal inquiries with team members, with a focus on emotional well-being, beyond the work itself. They were developing deeper relationships by deliberately starting meetings with a personal check-in, including more levels of people and people who are remote geographically.

A sense of confidence was projected – if we can succeed through a crisis, anything is possible. Nearly eight in ten agree (yet just 27% “strongly” agree), “Observing my direct report through Covid-19 I’m now able to identify the high-potential future leaders on my team.”

Individuals’ abilities have become more clear under stress. Leaders can observe how the team’s high-performers compared to others. Leaders have heightened awareness of rising stars, to invest and develop them.


When asked whether “It’s now imperative to cultivate a stronger explicit purpose connecting our business to our people,” we got our top-scoring “strongly agree” response of 56%. This resounding response drove to the heart of “The Why” businesses exist. It addressed how the focus of teamwork has improved, despite the shift to remote work, which so many companies had previously viewed with suspicion.

Leaders are focusing on objectives and outcomes over features and products. Their teams are pulling together and showing agility, focusing on crucial goals, and leaving distractions behind. This shift to renewed purpose is mentioned frequently by leaders as a reason for improved productivity for teams.

Almost unanimously, leaders intend to continue remote work in some shape and form. They have discovered everyone can stay connected, pull together, and accomplish team goals in this work environment, although a couple have noted the inevitable (and important) return of face-to-face meetings.

New Virtual Habits Have Formed

  • Living a life of constant travel as a “road warrior,” once considered essential, has proven optional — and may remain that way for the foreseeable future
  • Environmental benefits to the planet have been acknowledged and appreciated
  • Time savings and productivity boosts from ditching the traditional commute have been celebrated
  • Leaders get to see and know their teammates on a more personal level as pets and kids stroll through the background

Nearly nine in ten senior leaders (88%) in our study agree that they “have identified smarter, more creative work protocols that will remain in place.” What’s remarkable is the speed with which leaders were able to challenge established assumptions and make these changes. “Accelerating initiatives we had tried to put in place for years…they are now done in weeks,” said one respondent.

Leadership adapted and leveraged new ways of working to get things done. Tech tools were a key part of this, of course, and mentioned by most leaders. Yet, remote work accelerated teamwork by providing flexibility and autonomy, which took the fear out of decision-making and resulted in stronger team performance.

Our research indicated just two in ten senior leaders “strongly agree” they are “having reflective dialogues and debriefs with team members to identify developing skills and behaviors.”

A Sense of Purpose

Now is the time for leaders to create formal practices for teams to intentionally (and safely) share from the “head and heart.” These communications shifts during the pandemic have deepened relationships on teams and led to improved productivity and stronger sense of purpose. Let’s not lose the agility that’s been discovered. Let’s keep the momentum.

Five Main Takeaways:

  1. Leverage the Power of Purpose: Leaders can explore and inquire around the unique purpose for team members, that is, how each person contributes or shows up in an original, yet consistent way. Link team members’ unique contribution to the business purpose, the WHY we exist as a business.
  2. Name it and Explain it: Ask team members to reflect and name an acquired or left behind work process, interpersonal relations, way of thinking, communicating, or connecting that they will adopt into daily business practice; AND how each shift more positively serves the team and the business.
  3. Formal Reflection…What gets measured gets attention: Embed into your daily culture by opening virtual or physical meetings with each person sharing a one-minute story of professional caring or compassion they experienced over the past months and the impact it had on him/her. If there are more than 7 in the virtual meeting, go into triad breakouts to share.
  4. What gets measured gets attention: Consider administering an employee engagement survey in the coming 30-60 days. What is appreciated and working well, and what are the rising concerns?
  5. Preparing for pandemic work environment Phase 2: Create cross-business teams to contribute to a plan on how to effectively and compassionately welcome their furloughed colleagues back to the working organization.

Rachel Dreyfus is an Accenture-trained market research advisor solving strategic challenges through consumer research. She founded Dreyfus Advisors in 2013 and guides her clients’ marketing strategies, customer experience design, and new product development across industries experiencing digital disruption. She can be reached at [email protected] and please see more examples of her work at https://www.dreyfusadvisors.com/.