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Lessons in business leadership from the pandemic

Sean Farrington, Pluralsight EVP EMEA


The need to transform business operations at pace when Covid-19 hit has exacerbated digital skills gaps. Leaders have had to get to grips with managing remote teams, keeping up communication with employees and customers, while ensuring they stay engaged and motivated.

Upskilling and reskilling has never been more front of mind for business leaders. Examine the following trends: 59% of businesses accelerated their digital transformation when the pandemic hit, 64% began using cloud services more, and 66% completed digital initiatives that there had previously encountered resistance.

The need to transform business operations at pace when Covid-19 hit has exacerbated the UK’s digital skills gaps. The government is trying to close the gap by growing the UK’s skilled workforce, but organizations have also needed to find ways to adapt to allow business to continue. On top of this, leaders have had to get to grips with managing remote teams, keeping up communication with employees and customers, while ensuring they stay engaged and motivated. The absence of ‘corridor conversations’ has also led us to consider how to keep in touch with colleagues on a personal level too.

It has been a challenging time for business leaders, but it has also served as a great learning curve, and this article explores three ways to improve strategies for coping with new challenges in the future.

Take a top-down mentality 

In the current climate, it is crucial that leaders understand the role of technology. Organizations that keep a keen eye on the horizon and anticipate how technology will change ways of working will be better placed to maintain their competitive advantage.

Businesses can face the ultimate downfall if leaders are unable to reimagine themselves in the new technologically driven world. If those in the top roles fail to recognise the importance of this digital transformation, employees will follow suit. The call to drive change must come from above, otherwise the rest of the organization will never exist in the innovative space that is necessary for a modern company to keep up with its peers. In summary, the top-down mentality can have an adverse effect, if not handled correctly.

Regardless of the day-to-day role of a business leader, and whether or not they work closely with technology themselves, instilling the value of learning and development is of paramount importance – as well as engaging in upskilling themselves.

This approach encourages employees to learn, as they see senior managers embracing the same opportunities that they are being pushed towards. Remote working makes it particularly beneficial for leaders to be genuinely engaged in the educational pathway alongside employees. This includes having full visibility into what skills their employees need, where skills and knowledge gaps exist, and how and when upskilling works best.

Even in a role like sales, courses from cloud to AI can help to be able to understand first-hand how technology can solve pain points for customers. Although these skills are not directly required for a sales role, they support sales conversations. Without a wider field of expertise, a leader’s service to customers would not be nearly as comprehensive.

Be ready to pivot 

At the onset of the pandemic, businesses had to adapt, virtually overnight, to new ways of working and operating. Agility has been key to the success of this, and will continue to be so as we emerge from lockdown and into a hybrid model of work.

As such, businesses need the skillsets in place to work with new or different technology – and the means by which to equip their employees with the necessary skills.

For example, Cox Automotive was forced to pivot towards becoming a more data-driven organization when the pandemic made its usual methods of managing productivity impossible, as everyone worked from at home. To combat this, the company adopted Pluralsight Flow to help monitor workflow blockages and understand how teams were working across the organization. The data-driven program helped maintain productivity while working from home. In turn, leaders could focus on capability building and remain confident in their teams.

Being able to collect and analyse data about employees’ skills – and skill gaps – also helped Cox Automotive to improve its learning and development programs. Pluralsight’s Skill IQ platform enabled the identification of skills gaps, and using this data, Cox Automotive was able to provide the right training for each employee, and effectively measure the business outcome it provided.

Businesses need to be able to adopt new ways of working, when necessary, while maintaining productivity. The ability to truly understand how employees are working, where bottlenecks exist in the process or where skills are lacking is key to this.

The value of context with intention

The notion of ‘context with intention’ involves sharing as much information with employees as possible, and explaining the reason why decisions are being made. Since the beginning of the pandemic, leaders have focused on communicating clearly and regularly with teams. As geographical obstacles have skewed our normal communications, it’s become essential to provide workforces with the backdrop to any decision. Having a clear understanding of the direction the business is taking, and sharing this with employees, allows them to feel personally invested in the business progression. Ultimately, this will drive engagement, retention, and respect. However, it’s a two-way street – understanding the backdrop of employees’ personal situations is critical, particularly at a time when the personal and professional lines have become increasingly blurred.

Understanding the value of context with intention starts with empathy. Listening, being fully present, and taking a personal interest in your employees is the fundamental grounding to a successful team. Managing this across virtual spaces is never easy, and translating empathy across online platforms can be challenging. Creating extra space for the ‘corridor conversations’ that we used to have walking in and out of meetings or making a cup of tea help to overcome this, and making the additional effort to embed casual conversations into the working day, whether at the start or end of a conference call, will encourage the work/life balance that is needed for employees to maintain their own wellbeing.

Looking ahead

The past year and a half has dramatically altered many aspects of the business world, mostly for good. As a leader, a top priority has emerged – being ready to intercept, pivot and adapt to changing environments. Continuing to look towards the future and embrace new technology, putting the skills in place to adapt quickly and keeping employees motivated will all be key for businesses to remain competitive. As a leader, showing from the top that you are embracing a culture of learning and development, while remaining transparent with teams, will help embed this approach in everyone.