How Business Leadership Traits Will Evolve

Businesswoman wearing a red skirt and black jacket researches how business leadership will evolve in the coming years.

Crises often usher in changes—both sweeping and incremental. In the midst of current uncertainties, we’re witnessing real-time changes in business and organizational models. What types of leaders are successfully navigating their organizations through the current moment?

The answers to that question tell us a lot about the attributes that will define successful leadership in the future.

Focusing on Your North Star

Current circumstances have driven many businesses to a renewed focus on their purpose. In some cases, this has meant doubling down on their stated raison d’etre. David Heath, founder of socially-conscious apparel company, Bombas, recently told Forbes.com, “We originally founded Bombas to help support those experiencing homelessness…Our approach to what is happening now is an extension of how we always operate: with helping those in need at the core of everything we do.”

Other companies have responded to the unique challenges of this moment by leveraging their experience to meet the unique challenges of the current moment. In June, Peter Antall, CMO of telehealth company, AmWell, described for the blog SearchHealthIT the steps his company has taken to expand access to telemedicine. "We shifted folks who were in sales and other business-oriented roles into our operations team on the medical group side to help onboard providers.

For these businesses, understanding their purpose is key to leading—and thriving—through uncertain times. As leadership coach Nell DerickDebevoise writes, “One common thread among companies that are weathering the storm most successfully is an authentic and integrated commitment to a purpose larger than profitability or growth.”

Committing to Clear Communication and Transparency

At a time when uncertainty is gripping all of society, the business world is hardly immune. One recent survey found that employees are concerned about—among other things—the possibility of layoffs and the erosion of work/life balance due to increased remote work.

Transparency and clear communication, then, will be key to leaders looking to guide their companies through the current crisis. John A Quelch, professor and vice provost at Harvard Business School, stresses the importance of consistent communication—and even over-communication—writing, “You have to relentlessly communicate…You need a sense of order in which to communicate decisions and priorities…Silence is absolutely the worst possible thing that you allow to happen, because that’s when the rumor mill develops.”

Dave Walker, Chief People Officer at 1-800 Contacts echoes this sentiment, telling the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM), "During this time of high anxiety," Walker said, "one of the best things we can do is communicate with our associates, listen to their questions and concerns, help identify their needs, and respond proactively. Associates have expressed appreciation for these efforts and have said regular communication helps them cope during these challenging times."

Managing increasingly dispersed teams also will require different leadership communication skills to get the best out of workers. The new reality of virtual work is full of challenges—from feelings of disconnection to Zoom call burnout. In advising clients on how to manage remote teams, Deloitte counsels leaders to establish new traditions, check-in more frequently, and be more visible.

Many business leaders have begun implementing these tactics. CEO of CPG recruiter ForceBrands Josh Wand notes that despite the transition to remote work, he’s making time to connect daily with his workforce, including daily check-in meetings to find out what everyone is working on.

Such initiatives seem likely to pay dividends for companies beyond the current moment leading to increased expectations around communication and transparency.

Organizing for Agility

Recent disruptions have forced companies to improvise—and do so rapidly. McKinsey observed that one client “dusted off an…initiative to launch a curbside-delivery business. The [initial] work plan said 18 months. When the lockdowns hit, it went operational in two days.”

Sustaining that kind of momentum in the long term may not be possible (or even advisable), but such initiatives can provide a roadmap for organizational agility and instill a flexible and adaptable mindset across organizations.

As they mobilize to confront immediate circumstances, many businesses are rethinking how their organizational structure might need to change for the future. Clay Parker Jones, Group Director and Organizational Designer at R/GA, remarked in a recent interview, “Some firms are realizing that this is the moment to make change, and they’re moving into a more networked, more decentralized form... Instead of traditional hierarchies and matrices [think] about networks of [small] teams and trying to design [the organization] around the team as the individual unit of value.” This approach, Jones says, is beneficial because small teams adapt more easily.

In practice, such a transformation might look like establishing new measures for individual and organizational performance. SHRM has found that company leaders have found themselves challenged when trying to conduct performance reviews in the current circumstances. Some leaders are taking this as an opportunity to re-imagine their performance review processes. CHG Software of Salt Lake City recently discarded its review structure, after determining it was ineffective in helping to improve future performance. The company now opts to give employees in-the-moment feedback, which is likely more appropriate to the unpredictability of the current moment.

One resource business leaders can look to as they restructure their organizations for agility is their company's board of directors. Strategically structured boards can add a great deal of value to companies, particularly during challenging times. Indeed, A recent report by McKinsey noted that boards can help companies navigate the crisis by easing burdens on management and helping to plan for the post-crisis world.

Leading With Empathy

In addition to aligning employees to company purpose, communicating clearly and consistently, and organizing for agility, leaders of the future also need to cultivate empathetic leadership. In today’s climate, customers, employees and communities expect companies to demonstrate sensitivity to the uncertainties they’re facing. According to Forbes, along with all of their other responsibilities, leaders are also expected to be “counselor in chief,” drawing on sensitivity not only when employees become overwhelmed and need help, but when deciding whether and how to change policies around things like telecommuting and sick leave.

For many leaders, these responsibilities may mean leaving their comfort zone. Megan Cunningham, founder and CEO of Magnet Media, found that connecting with her employees in a more meaningful way meant abandoning her preferred written communication in favor of smaller team and one-on-one meetings.

Author and leadership coach Alain Hunkins advises leaders not to overlook empathy. Reminding business leaders that their employees are trying to process trauma, he says, “If you give time and space for acknowledging it, you create the psychological safety that’s needed to be able to get any other kind of work done.”

Leadership for the Future

As leaders try to meet the needs of their businesses against a backdrop of disruption and uncertainty, the attributes of successful leadership will continue to evolve. By focusing on purpose, transparency, agility and empathy, leaders can help their employees, customers and communities navigate this unpredictable moment.

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Fifth Third Bank, National Association and are solely the opinions of the author. This article is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute the rendering of legal, accounting, or other professional services by Fifth Third Bank or any of their subsidiaries or affiliates, and are provided without any warranty whatsoever. Deposit and credit products provided by Fifth Third Bank, National Association. Member FDIC.