When the going gets virtual, leadership can emerge from the least expected places

14 May 2020

When the going gets virtual, leadership can emerge from the least expected places

As logistics companies and supply chain firms face the most extraordinary stress test, what kind of leadership is stepping up and leading forward?

At a virtual UK round-table with the senior leadership from major logistics companies and the supply chain function from several industry verticals, we heard about the challenges they are facing and what exactly successful organisations are learning about leadership, people and culture.

New practices, long days

Companies have adapted to working remotely. There was no alternative.

In doing so, video conferencing and technology has improved efficiency, but people can still undoubtedly miss the social interaction. In the virtual world, conversations can feel transactional and not as fulfilling from a human perspective.

As conventional ‘office hours’ disappear and demands ramp up, days are longer and it’s difficult to draw the line between home and work.

Under those conditions, managing office teams remotely and keeping morale up is something leaders are having to learn quickly. Physical isolation has emphasised differences in people’s behaviour and adaptability.

Some extroverts are engaging better, sharing information, blogs and communicating openly, while some introverts retreat further with social distancing. 

There are rules and procedures, but the best managers differentiate and work out how to coach the more introverted and pull them back into the flow.

Emerging leadership stars

Like diamonds under pressure, new leadership stars are emerging, and we will all have to reappraise how we recognise, encourage and empower great people and performance in extraordinary times.

Physical dislocation has meant many senior exec leaders have not been able to be as visible. By contrast, operations have really stepped up and naturally assumed responsibility.

In depots and on manufacturing sites, some team leaders have a different air about them. They feel in control and take on more responsibility, stepping up to the leadership plate.

These emerging leaders may have slipped through the net in the past and will now need to be assessed differently – recognised as part of a core leadership group in the future.

At the extreme end, some customers have reflected that the people who tend to be remote are those in positions of authority and the business is operating more efficiently without them. This implies that the bureaucracies and hierarchies they’ve created are stifling empowerment and possibly innovation “in the field”.

Many manufacturers have also recognised this phenomenon and are rethinking how they perpetuate the changes of behaviour they are seeing in their teams.  

Supply chain agility and risk management

Supply chain agility, speed of decision-making and delivery has sharpened in the current crisis.

Instead of seeking the perfect outcome, “going for it” and learning as you go, is producing extraordinary results. For example, major food retailers have dramatically increased capacity to fulfil online orders from 50-75% and in some cases doubling in 4-6 weeks, where previously an increase of 10-15% would have seemed ambitious.

Some leaders may ask why such pace and purposeful execution can't be the new norm. Maintaining momentum and results may well supersede the risk management imperative in decision making.

Empowering staff to make effective and calculated decisions, and being 70% right rather than 100% wrong,  is driving performance.

Waiting and planning for the end of the crisis could be too late for businesses when the volumes come back.

The speed of decision-making has been refreshing for many leaders. Particularly decisions on investments and projects which are genuinely beneficial to the business.

Although the pace is liberating for many leaders, it must not encourage recklessness as a by-product. It will be interesting to see if this pace of decision-making will endure beyond the crisis.

Resilience and culture

The possibility of a global pandemic was the biggest risk to all businesses, but it is unlikely any business had a definitive plan to deal with it.

Inevitably, writing a plan is nowhere near as effective as just getting on and doing it in order to survive. Encouraging decision-makers to think on their feet is all very well, but most businesses have a prevailing culture of risk management and emphasis on accountability. Therefore, changing the employee mindset and enabling personal empowerment must come from the board level.

The important question is what resilience is and how you plan for it. To many, it has become clear that teams are bound together by the depth of their relationships and the time they have spent working together. This underpins individual, group and company resilience. Technology will not instantly replace this, and if the depth is not there, it is unlikely remote working will work.

A genuine culture of empowerment at every level will mark out successful companies, post-crisis.

Robustness and viability

The crisis has accelerated the assessment of the long-term viability of operating models and individual businesses. Some businesses have been operating “on the edge” with tight margins, using suppliers to run their own cash flows. This crisis will favour companies with well-managed balance sheets able to have direct conversations with their customers and suppliers.

Just as important are the people who make up these businesses, who have adapted and committed in the face of unmitigated supply and demand shocks.

Identifying genuine leaders, and empowering those who have stepped-up, will be how we also measure successful organisations in the coming months.