Leaders must build agility into their culture for post-COVID success

The survival of many organisations will rest on what their leaders do next.

by Dustin Seale
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2020

The habit of creating cultures has been around as long as homo sapiens. It is built into us; we have an inherent need for norms and patterns and we have a need to know what's coming next. People will often accept a culture they don't love but one that they know, over the possibility of a better one but one that they don't know. That desire to know and to be able to see and connect in a framework is core to how we are as human beings and what brings us together. 

Now more than ever culture has come to the forefront of the minds of leaders. We have seen better behaviours, more collaboration, more transparency, more trust and more agility throughout this crisis than ever before. There is a danger, however, that these characteristics will begin to fade. 

CEOs and leaders currently describe the path to the future as “stepping into the fog”. As they step into the fog, there are a number of considerations that leaders are going to have to bear in mind and learn how to leverage so that these characteristics become the new normal. 

Culture is based on context 

There is no single recipe for successful company culture - you can't go down the road and borrow somebody else’s - but there will be one that's right for your organisation, what you're facing at that time and in your given context. Leaders in many industries are facing an undoubtedly tumultuous context at the moment, so bearing this in mind in a post-COVID world will be essential. 

Culture is non-linear by nature, so there's not one singular factor that creates it. If leaders want to maintain a successful and beneficial company culture after this crisis, they must cultivate a strategy that will influence their overall culture. When most organisations find themselves in a new context they prioritise strategy, restructuring and building capability. 

They often forget the implicit side of the organisation which involves the mindset, the informal routines in how they do things, and the understanding of the capacities they need to navigate this new world. All these elements massively impact culture but the primary one is leadership. Up to forty per cent of what you see in your organisation regarding culture comes down to leadership. This is the biggest leverage point for companies navigating out of this crisis.   

Leaders can drive culture in a number of ways 

Instilling a high sense of vitality, energy, collaboration and resilience is essential. Leaders must be in a growth mindset while demonstrating the willingness to try things: experiment, fail fast, innovate, learn and continually be adaptive. 

None of these efforts would be successful without purpose. Not the purpose statement on the side of the wall in the lobby, but ensuring that the people in the organisation actually have a connection to the purpose of the organisation. When these efforts are in alignment, you have a thriving organisational culture, you have an agile culture and you can make things happen. 

Sometimes, crises cause leaders to forget about these things and concentrate on what they deem immediately essential because the crisis has become the purpose. As leaders think about taking your organisation into the next phase which is another set of unknowns, one of the critical elements is connecting to purpose: what do we stand for beyond survival? 

If a leader can successfully make that connection while maintaining the vitality and growth mindsets, the predictive elements around what it will do for their organisation are astounding. 

Options for a Post-COVID world

In our view, a post-COVID world could fall under a combination of the following four scenarios: Digital enclaves, tech-powered humanity, a growing divide or an ‘in this together’ scenario. The eventual combination of these scenarios is uncertain, however what is certain is that we are living in the most uncertain time of at least the past two decades. 

There are thousands of possible futures that we may endure after this pandemic, so leaders must prepare by readying their organisation for multiple futures while ensuring that agility becomes their ultimate goal. If you're going through the fog you have to be able to move sideways and you have to be able to avoid the obstacles that are going to catch you unaware.

Agility is going to be essential for success

Those that succeed must act in the face of uncertainty while maintaining fluidity until the time is right. Leaders will have to anticipate and navigate seemingly insurmountable changes while remaining passionate even in failure. These attributes of leadership have been difficult to quantify, which inspired us to develop our Agile Leader Potential (ALP) tool. 

This tool is a new breed of assessment that provides feedback on this high-value skillset. The ALP utilises AI technology, video analytics and game-based challenges to quantify a leader’s tendencies to be agile. This is just one example of the means by which leaders are constructing paths to capitalise on personal strengths and address the challenges that will face their businesses through and after this crisis. 

Winners and Losers

This crisis has made it very clear that there are some winners and there are some losers. Some of it is just being lucky: you're in the right place at the right time or your particular industry is well situated for what's going on right now. For some, it has unfortunately been down to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It doesn't matter how agile you are, if you're leading an airline, this is and would have always been an incredibly difficult period of time. 

For some leaders, there is no way around this crisis, they aren’t going to thrive at the moment but they are going to have to find a new path forward. But for most organisations, including my own, success during and after this crisis is down to leadership and culture. How leaders lead people through this period and what the culture of those companies is like will define their futures. Leaders will need to absorb what's happening and remain agile if they want to succeed.

Dustin Seale is partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ London office and managing partner of Heidrick Consulting in Europe

Image credit: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images


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