COVID- 19 provides us with a moral leadership question

I’m genuinely loathed to write anything that might be seen to be riding on a sensationalist wave. At the same time, it is almost impossible to pass a day without stories relating to the spread of COVID-19 and the impact that is already having, and could have further on society and the workforce. Wherever we are in the world, whatever continent or time zone, this is a dominating event.

I was dismayed and a little flabbergasted  last week to hear a number of organisations suggesting they didn’t have an obligation to pay sick pay to people who were self isolating, to the point that the Government has stepped in to change the UK rules on statutory sick pay to ensure people who feel ill can stay off work. I know, from talking to others from around the world, the same debate is playing out in other countries too.

I’m not going to comment on the legalities, there are people better placed to do that, but I do want to talk about moral compass. Particularly those of the people who will choose to hide behind legislation rather than face into a moral obligation. In fact, the whole unfortunate situation shines a very firm light on the way in which organisations perceive their employees and their responsibility towards them. This isn’t so much about statute, it is about leadership.

If we believe that given the chance our colleagues will use this as an opportunity to get one over on the company, that they will be slackers, malingerers and wastrels then that says more about us than it does them. If our employees see this as a chance to not come into work, to avoid the workplace, then it says more about our culture and organisation, than it does about them.

Most of us will not have experienced an event of this kind before, this is unchartered water. We have a choice about how we look at the impact it will have on our workforces and that choice will pretty much define how we are as an organisation. We can see it as our responsibility to protect, to reassure and to look after our workforces, to work together to see this through. Or we can look at our ability to protect ourselves from the impact this will have on our workforce, to minimise their risk to our organisations and to only do what we are legally obliged to do.

Whilst we are in the eye of the storm, it will feel as if this will go on forever. But it won’t, time will move on and we will come out the other side, one way or another. And when we do, people will look at their employer, their organisation and they will judge them on how they behaved. We talk so much about social responsibility and doing the right thing and here and now we have an opportunity to demonstrate this is more than words. Good organisations with strong leaders will do so, those that view their employees simply as disposable resource will not.

Which side do you want to be on?

 

It’s more than bums on seats

I’ve always enjoyed resourcing. Well, with the exception of interviewing which I to this day find the most terribly dull activity to spend a whole day on – one or two is my limit. Which makes it more surprising to me when few leaders seem to spend as much time on it as I think they should.

When I was studying HR back in the days of steam engines and the printing press, recruitment was seen as a bit of a transactional process. Our efforts were mostly focused on the how and not the why. Bizarrely, much of the recruitment chatter at conferences these days still focusses on the same, with technology platforms taking the place of strategic discussions.

If we believe that people are a defining competitive advantage for organisations, if we believe that having talented, committed, passionate people in the right jobs is critical, then we have to spend more time focussing on recruitment and resourcing than simply talking about the latest platform to help improve speed/reduce headcount/take out cost. Because ultimately, our job isn’t about any of those things.

Hiring good people should be hard, whether internally or externally. It should make us think, we should put time, effort and investment into it. Our obsession to make it easy absolutely misses the point of why we are doing it. An employee that is paid £25,000 probably has an annual cost to the business closer to double that when you take on costs, occupancy and other factors, if they stay for five years, that’s £250,000. How many other decisions like that would you enter into with such little due diligence?

That’s before I get into the cultural factors, issues of inclusivity,  future needs, team dynamics etc.

If, as leaders, we believe that human capability is one of our key responsibilities, then we need to take resourcing a lot more seriously than we do. And those that work in HR and recruiting teams need to get much better at explaining why. This isn’t a process that can be outsourced or systemised in the relentless pursuit of cost savings, it is a strategic imperative that needs to be understood.

When the going gets tough

Sometimes life as a leader just gets tough. You reach a point where you feel like you’re putting in more energy than the reward you’re getting out. It is hard to see the future, to plot a course, to be able to understand where you’re leading to. The whole thing feels tricky, challenging and relentless.

It is at these moments that we get an opportunity to better understand our character, to test ourselves, to learn who we really are.

Do we face into the challenges? Do we ride the wave? Or do we walk away, either physically or metaphorically, and leave the responsibility to someone else?

Give me ten successful leaders and I’ll guarantee all of them will be able to recount a moment where they’ve faced into a situation like the one I’ve described. Where they haven’t known the answers, felt alone, worried, lost. And I can guarantee that they’ll describe how they stuck it out, overcame and eventually found the clarity they needed.

They won’t talk about how they hid, disappeared, abdicated or absolved themselves of the responsibility for their team and themselves. They’ll talk about how they overcame.

Whatever challenge you’re facing into, there are people around that can support, people who’ve been through the same or something similar. People who are there to help. It doesn’t matter how senior or junior you are, we all sometimes need help to figure things out. There is always someone to ask.

But what others can’t do for you is bring the resolve, the grit, the resilience and the strength to see things through. That’s something only you can bring to the party and that is the part that determines the kind of leader you are.

So what’s it going to be?

 

The answer probably isn’t simple

I’ve been writing a blog now for over ten years and over that period I’ve received praise, criticism, support, detraction and sometimes even hate. I often read comments or statements where people ask why anyone bothers blogging anymore, probably much easier to record a film of yourself just out of the gym and post it on LinkedIn.

Smashing it…

For me this has always been a way to set out thoughts or ideas that are buzzing around my head. Incomplete and sometimes inarticulate explorations of something that I’m trying to work out. My average post is about 400-500 words, so you’re never going to explore an idea fully in that space, but maybe set people off thinking too.

Sometimes I sit and write something that I know is going to be awkward. Over the years you develop a sense of the topics that tend to get people het up. The ones where there is a defined collective view that you’re questioning, or the topics where we are being overly British and avoiding. Sometimes the topics feel benign, but then hit a nerve.

Mostly the people that read these articles are people interested in the world of work, leadership, culture and human resource management. People that would espouse the exchanging of ideas, the ability to express unpopular views, the creation of environments that are open and challenging. “There’s no such thing as a stupid question”, how many times have we heard that?

Today as I write this, for very different reasons, people are talking about kindness. There are numerous statements about just “being kind”. And I’m struck by the incredible tension that sits behind such a blanket statement. Be kind to everyone? The rapist? The terrorist? The domestic abuser? Or just the ones that we feel sorry for.

Last week I wrote that if we are serious about inclusion, we have to consider inclusion for all. I can’t help feel that there is a similar tension here. When we start to apply our own filters, our own rules, our own personal criteria then by definition we introduce a level of discrimination to our original assumption. Which is perhaps absolutely fine, perhaps absolutely human, but should come with a level of honesty, rather than a false image of purity.

If we are genuinely interested in creating better working cultures, better environments, event a society that is better for all. If we want these things then we need to understand that the answers are more likely to be found in messy compromise than clarity of simple assertion, that they are more likely to involve us having to calibrate our own beliefs and opinions as much as anyone else.

I’ll leave you with this from Barack Obama, which sums it up nicely.

“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically woke and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly,”

“The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.”