Leaders finally realise what leadership means

As the world slowly recovers, regroups and prepares for a post-Covid world, the business lessons learned by leaders over the past year puts people, power skills and problem-solving top of the list.

by John Stern
Last Updated: 19 Apr 2021

Change is the new constant, according to Costi Karayannis, managing director of learning services at Capita. He doesn’t mean a linear shift from point A to point B but, in this Covid and post-Covid world, a move from a place of relative stability to one of constant instability.

“This is the moment we as leaders finally realise what leadership actually means,” says Karayannis. “It’s not about a CEO on a magazine cover, it’s the industrialisation of power skills or soft skills.” Capita, who offer a wide range of learning services from big public sector contracts to major banks to employability skills, transforming how the Royal Navy operates, finds leadership to be the most in-demand skill bought and delivered by clients through the pandemic.

Trust, empowerment, collaboration

Change is about people. However much businesses might talk about people as assets or inventory, they’re not and the reality is much more complex.

Karayannis quotes a senior leader in the British Army who took part in a leadership programme with Capita: “Now more than ever the lessons that we have all learned [through Covid] are of major significance; managing teams remotely requires a lot of trust, empowerment and collaboration.”

If those three qualities are increasingly important then, adds Karayannis, “now is the perfect opportunity to pivot away from much of the old-school, task-based management”.

There is increasing evidence of businesses coming to understand that learning actively contributes to business outcomes.

“A McKinsey report clearly says that businesses need to get learning right to fuel their talent engine,” explains Karayannis, “and to create an empowered workforce that is fluent in the art of fail fast, learn and repeat.”

According to the Global Sentiment Survey by Donald Taylor, the learning industry veteran, L&D priorities have flipped. “We expected L&D leaders and business leaders to want to introduce technical skills and go digital first,” says Karayannis. “That’s the obvious way to go. But these have gone down the list in favour of reskilling and upskilling – these are business issues, not learning issues.”

Jack Welch introduced the role of the CLO more than three decades ago at GE yet it’s taken until now for it to become firmly established in the corporate organisation and for it to be recognised that it’s not just an HR role, it’s a business role. In late 2019, Alison Rose, on her first day as CEO of what is now NatWest Group, talked of fostering “a culture of continuous learning” and establishing a learning academy that “I hope will become a cornerstone of our ambition to be a lifelong learning organisation”.

There’s nothing soft about soft skills

Ensuring hundreds of thousands can work at home effectively and maintaining delivery of services or products out in the new digital world – these require practical skills. But the skills on which those practical skills depend are the human ones. “Calling them soft skills devalues them, and they’re more commonly known as power skills or super skills,” says Karayannis.

“Fundamentally they’re behavioural at heart and allow us to adapt to our environment. These skills allow people to prioritise in the face of massive ambiguity and communicate those priorities at pace. And then when they don’t work out, stay resilient, rinse and repeat.”

These are the “value skills” of the post pandemic era, according to Karayannis, most in demand by high-performing organisations that will get the most out of people.

Challenge, provoke, complement

When Capita won a learning transformation contract with the Royal Navy, it deliberately recruited a team with no armed forces experience. “The Navy wanted to break from its legacy and the way things have always been done,” says Karayannis, “so we hired a CLO who had never set foot in a military base, and had to google what the ranks were. Yet he’s made an enormous impact already in changing our perspective on what great learning outcomes look like.”

“It’s in our interest to create the most inclusive and diverse organisations possible,” says Karayannis. But when he talks about diversity he doesn’t just mean protected characteristics (for example, age, gender, race etc.) but more specifically cognitive diversity. “Bring someone from way outside your domain. Find ways to change the discussion with a little provocation. Nowadays I actually look for people in the team to bring something totally different to me, who can challenge me and complement me. Otherwise, you’ve always got the same voices in the room. We know from experience – and research – that inclusive organisations perform far better in almost all business metrics.”

The barriers to inclusivity are three-fold: unconscious bias; the battle with biology and human’s natural tribalism that creates division or a ‘them and us’ dynamic; and short-term corporate thinking because “inclusive leadership is not a quick fix”. He adds: “In the end we’re trying to build psychological safety in our teams, because all the evidence shows that if people feel safe in their environment, like they belong, that their opinion and their work are valued, that they’ll deliver for you.”

Capita put 200 military and civilian leaders in the British Army through an inclusive leadership programme. “The army is rightly known for its leadership capability but this additional lens of inclusion was revolutionary for many of the delegates, and they spoke of how differently they’ll now behave.”

Karayannis concludes: “Inclusive leadership gives us a unifying purpose, and it allows us collectively to do a better job, whatever the world throws at us. And frankly, who wouldn’t want that in their teams?”

Costi’s key learnings

Role modelling is more important than ever

People will compare what they do to you as leaders so take accountability for issues and don’t walk by.

The small stuff matters

Even though you’re behind a computer screen, you should still treat your people in a human way. I’m not necessarily the best role model here but understanding that people’s worlds have been turned upside down and putting yourself in their shoes can make a difference.

Leaders are human too – be authentic

It’s all right to fail and it’s all right to talk about your personal challenges, in part because it gives permission to the people around you to do the same. I want to encourage open and honest discussion. Be the same person at work as you are at home. People want to see the real you.

Be brave

Agility and problem-solving are so important right now. Try things out – not everything will work but we may never have another opportunity like this to make such big transformational changes in our businesses, in our teams and in how we operate as leaders.

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