Senior Consultant and Head of Global Talent UK, Charlie Somers Cocks, shares her experience of running a successful global programme in the middle of a pandemic, reflecting on our new leadership needs and the ways in which learning technology can be mobilised to help meet them.
At Impact, we have been working with a global car parts manufacturer for over four years, delivering custom leadership development experiences globally to more than 3,000 employees a year. When Covid-19 hit, instead of asking us to simply convert our programme to virtual delivery, our client recognised that the challenges facing her people were now different, and that they required a different approach. The programme would indeed be delivered virtually (using Impact’s web-based learning app, air™), and it still needed to be centered around leadership, but it needed to focus specifically on leadership in the context of disruption.
Leadership agility for uncertain times
In light of this, we adapted the programme to focus specifically on leadership agility. In turbulent times, leaders need to be able to respond to unexpected situations quickly and effectively. Using two core elements of Impact’s Leadership Agility model, scanning and readiness, participants learnt to analyse their environment for changes and to anticipate what they needed to do to be ready.
If someone throws a tennis ball at you, you will catch it instinctively. But if someone throws a box at you, it’s not instinctive to catch it – there are too many unknowns, such as how heavy it is or how it is weighted. So you have to get ready to catch it in a slightly different way, by picking up information from the thrower: How heavy did it look when they lifted it? Was it leaning to one side? Participants were encouraged to ask how they could get better at picking up clues in a fast-moving situation, which they could then use to inform their response.
We encouraged participants to think about how they were reacting to what was going on around them and what their triggers were. As part of this we explored the neuroscience behind the amygdala hijack and their reactions to stress. This self-awareness, coupled with exploring tools for staying calm, allowed them to develop new habits around thinking clearly in these new situations that demanded an agile response.
A leader can only be truly agile by inspiring the people they work with and by effective communication. For this to happen, an awareness of others – of their different reactions and different needs – is vital. This part of the programme reminded participants that everyone thinks and works differently, and that the way they communicate should be adapted according to each individual. Asking themselves questions like: What does this person need from me? Are they detail-oriented or big picture? How can I adapt my message and how can I truly listen to them and their perspectives? Flexing communication styles, being responsive to others’ needs and making space for them to talk about stress is a key learning for leadership in uncertain times.
Learning in the flow of work
Whereas many programmes worked around the Covid-19 restrictions by becoming digital replicas of their originals, fitting on to the same time footprint, we chose to spread this one out to accommodate busy schedules and to make space for reflection. The journey was split into 60- or 90-minute sessions, with a maximum of three sessions per week. Participants might explore a theory on Monday in a one-hour webinar, they would then return to the virtual office on Tuesday, and then on Wednesday in a small group setting they would talk about what they’d noticed in relation to the theory and reflect upon their learnings.
With leadership agility as the red thread running throughout the programme, it was important to show how each theme fitted in with it. Summarising the key messages from each week allowed the participants to cement their reflections. Each week ended with a playback in air, which encouraged them to share insights and ideas with their wider team back in the workplace or to do one of the practical tasks to start a conversation about a key topic. The ability to put things into action and enact the cycle of learning, implementing and reflecting is really valuable and helps further build that leadership agility muscle.
Engaging others in learning technology
Our client has now seen first-hand the value of this integrative approach – of having air as a companion in your pocket and a series of amazing resources at your fingertips. She understands the value of the mixed approach of self-learning and group work that it encourages and would like to carry on using it when we return to face-to-face experiences.
As facilitators, we have learnt a lot too, including some good lessons about the best ways to engage people in learning technology. It’s not easy when participants have busy day jobs and you’re asking them to work with yet another platform, but our recent integration of air into Microsoft Teams will help with this enormously, blending air seamlessly into their daily working lives. We also learnt that there are ways to not just welcome participants to air, but to get them intrigued and engaged in using it as an app, helping them to explore its full potential. How you capture people’s interest early on is crucial – the welcome and the introduction can really help participants to get on board with the whole learning journey.
Engaging people with technology is one thing, but it’s also vital to acknowledge the fact that it is a different experience and not everyone will be comfortable with that. A really interesting activity we did was to ask participants to take us on a 60-second tour of their new working environment (usually their home office) in the first session. Obviously, some felt more comfortable doing this than others, but the important thing was that it created a space for the small groups to have a conversation about what they were noticing, and about why some people might not be using their video technology in work interactions.
Encouraging participants to embrace learning technology also meant showing them how they could utilise it with their own people. For example, we used a collaborative document in the very first session and many of the participants loved it; they saw first-hand how effective it is as a tool for brainstorming and immediately began thinking about how to use it with their teams back in the workplace. It wasn’t just about what they were learning, it was also about how they were doing it: using pictures to start a conversation, using a document to brainstorm, having a discussion around communication preferences in their playback session. All of this gave them tools to take back to their teams.
A partnership approach
For me, the most important element of the whole learning journey was having an amazing partnership approach with the client. It worked for her and it worked for us: she could float ideas past us, challenge us, question us, and she trusted us, knowing that we would always do our best for her. We built this relationship up over years, and it meant that we could demonstrate truly agile leadership ourselves, as she gave us the space to flex around the new Covid-19 limitations and the new needs of her people. Without this trust and collaboration we would not have been able to create such a well-thought-out and useful proposition, which is tailored to the unique situation we find ourselves in, but which will also be just as relevant in the future as it is now.