Leading People in Turbulent Transition

June 9, 2020 Dan McDonough

Businesses are emerging from lockdown into an uncertain future; corporate and market turmoil continues, previous operating models are becoming increasingly less relevant, companies fight to turn around their prospects and large-scale unemployment looms.  Through it all, Covid 19 remains an unpredictable continuum.  The potential for resurgence, the success of tracking the infection, and the development of antivirals or a vaccine all remain unknowns.  What is certain is that the consequences of this crisis are not over and that the human impact, as well as the macro-economic effects,  will be, profound. 

For most people lockdown will have been the most traumatic period of their lives.  Prolonged isolation, privation, and fear, compounded by childcare challenges, and concern for family and livelihoods will all have taken their toll. These are physical and psychological costs, which will continue to resonate among the workforce as companies struggle to get back on their feet; not least as many employees will return to former workspaces with a degree of trepidation.  This new era of business abnormality will require a shift from a management to leadership mindset, and in meeting such unprecedented demands most line managers will find themselves in uncharted territory.

As the first unit sent to southern Afghanistan, 3 PARA’s mission was billed as a peace support operation, but we quickly became embroiled in an unprecedented level of combat not experienced by the British Army since the Korean War.  Massive, unanticipated, and rapid change reinforced the military’s resilient ability to make order out of chaos by adapting and overcoming in adversity.  However, there were also challenges to surmount in transitioning back to what had become the abnormal of peacetime life in the UK and the requirement to lead a very different community of people altered by their experience of combat.  As in battle, overarching mission purpose, empowerment, and its relationship to the dynamic between leadership, people, and organisational culture was crucial to installing the right collective and individual mindset to adjust to new circumstances. 

Like combat and its aftermath, Covid 19 has brought new emphasis to the wellbeing and resilience of an organisation’s people and this must be central to everything a company does.  As well as the regulatory aspects of creating a safe working environment, welfare also needs to include compassion, especially regarding mental health.  The 3 PARA battlegroup suffered over seventy combat casualties, but there was a wider impact beyond those wounded or killed.  While a minority suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, no one was untouched by Afghanistan.  Months of isolation from normality, with prolonged exposure to risk, pressure, and anxiety, all had an impact.  Consequently, we placed emphasis on the well-being of our people and their mental health as we adjusted to the abnormality of the environment we had returned to.  Apart from providing clinical support, we actively talked about mental well-being.  Team leaders were encouraged to engage their directs on the issue.  They were also equipped with, and trained in the use of a trauma risk management tool called TRiM, which was designed to help them spot warning signs among their people and peers. 

Crucially, we phased our return to a different way of working from the combat zone we had become used to.  On the journey home, we spent a short period of decompression time in Cyprus where the troops could unwind, let off steam, and share their collective experiences in an environment free from stress.  The unit then spent a specified adjustment week back in barracks before departing on leave and staggering subsequent return dates so as to manage the final return to work in an incremental manner.  Through it all, we wrapped the arm of welfare around everyone who needed it, including peoples’ families.  It became the main effort and it had to be led from the top.  Showing compassion, spending time with individuals, and fighting to get them what they needed became as important at home as it had been in Helmand.  It was the right thing to do, but it also paid dividends; helping readjustment, recuperation, and playing a vital part in regenerating operational capability to return to Afghanistan for another tour of duty just over a year later. 

However, as in battle, just looking after your people is not enough on its own to create resilience.  Having mission purpose was critical to adjusting back to the new normal of home life, just as it will be essential for companies returning to work in the Covid 19 environment where empowerment will be key.  Empowerment within mission intent had been at the fore in Afghanistan.  3 PARA was distributed over 40,000 km2 and the biggest leadership requirement was to enable directs and their teams to use their initiative to take their own decisions to fulfil the overarching intent of the mission.  It was just as important when we came home.  At the time, the official welfare system was not designed to cope with the scale of what we had been through.  So, when the system said ‘no’, we found our own solutions, such as setting up our own charity to raise money to pay for mobility vehicles and additional care requirements for the wounded and their families. 

Whether back in the office, on the shop floor or still at home, employees will also need purpose and direction as they come out of lockdown, and they will need to feel empowered.  For many, the experience of virtual working will also have had some positive side effects.   Hierarchical office structures may have been flattened, access to senior management increased, and a greater sense of devolved responsibility may have been engendered.  If properly harnessed and translated back into the office environment, they will yield the benefits of greater creativity, productivity, and pace, as well as better motivated people, with higher resilience, well-being, and morale.  Leveraging these opportunities to generate greater empowerment will be essential in the new ways of working, where flexible structures, delegated authority and accountability will be key determinants in generating discretionary effort and making the battle-winning difference between success or failure.  But if they are to become sustainable and extend beyond being mere accidental by-products, there will be a requirement for a fundamental shift from old-style management practices to a leadership mindset.  The mediocre of the frozen middle, with its propensity to delegate upwards, along-side muddled messaging, siloed thinking and poor decision-making will no longer do, and it will necessitate investment in codifying and embedding leadership skills and tool sets.

Whether at peace or at war, the empowerment of a military unit’s people and their wellbeing and resilience comes from mission purpose.  It is reinforced by effective and clear communications and collaboration across functional divisions, which breeds collective accountability.  It is backed up by an agile decision-making process, utilised at all levels of the command chain and flexible enough for leaders, regardless of grade, to use their own initiative to pivot appropriately at the local level, where action matters most.  Finally, it is underpinned by a codified leadership framework of practiced skills and tools, which translates the values of unit culture into actionable behaviour; often bold, but always within the conduct of achieving the intent.  This is the framework of skills and tools that business leaders at all levels need today.  For many managers, they are attributes that may yet reside beyond their ken.  But, given the perennial nature of Covid 19 and its multiple impacts, the military experience of prevailing and succeeding in turbulent times makes for a perspective worthy of detailed consideration.

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