HR Management & Compliance, Learning & Development, Talent

Uncovering Hidden Leadership Gaps

If there’s one silver lining in a year marred by a global pandemic and economic uncertainty, it’s this: Many HR managers are taking the opportunity to rethink roles and address hidden weaknesses and leadership gaps.

Source: Dina Mariani / iStock / Getty

“Every business has at least some blind spots—failures, missteps, or seemingly small oversights that hold them back or impact their ongoing success in some way,” said Kristen McAlister, President and COO at Cerius Executives. “When the economy is strong, it’s harder to spot these things; but during challenging times—like the crisis we’re in now—many of those weaknesses are brought to light.”

As many HR leaders are learning, the most important gaps are often those within a company’s leadership teams—in the C-suite or other executive roles or even within the HR function itself. Typically, these gaps expose one of several things:

  • Not the right leadership—A leader (or group of leaders) doesn’t have the right skills for the role, such as the ability to lead people during trying times.
  • Not enough leadership—This is often the case when company owners or top executives serve dual roles. For example, a CEO is leading the company but also serving as COO or CFO, roles that demand a very specific set of focused skills.
  • Not enough leadership agility—For example, when top executives or HR leaders aren’t able to adjust to new market conditions or influence company culture.

“During times of crisis or intense flux, leadership teams are often the deciding factor between whether a company rises to the occasion or collapses under the pressure,” said McAlister. “There’s never been a more important time for organizations to ensure they have the right leadership, enough of it, and the leadership agility and skill sets to ride out the storm—and possibly emerge stronger.”

5 Critical Responsibilities for Today’s Leaders (and Lessons Learned)

As an HR leader, the job is to empower successful managers to achieve successful business outcomes. That includes having the right leaders in the right roles and ensuring they have the proper skills to bring their A-game to a difficult and highly dynamic business climate.

As you evaluate your current leaders, remember these critical actions they must be able to take during times of crisis:

1. Demonstrate quick market responsiveness.

Flexibility is the name of the game when business conditions shift. CEOs need their leadership teams to immediately reach out to customers. Find out how they are being impacted, and share how the company is going to increase support and partner with them going forward. Based on market conditions, leadership teams must also review what needs to change with what the company provides, how you provide it, or whom you provide it to. Companies that were able to assess this and execute changes quickly are not only surviving but also thriving during this crisis.

“In our network of business executives, many CEOs took on this work themselves,” said McAlister. “They either didn’t have strong enough talent with the right skill sets, or they didn’t have anyone available at all. In some cases, leaders spent too much time helping employees adapt to the work-from-home (WFH) environments, or they thought they could simply hunker down and ‘wait it out’ instead of focusing on making quick adjustments to address new market conditions.”

2. Protect your leaders from overload.

The pace of change over the past months has been dizzying. When things change quickly, it’s critical that leaders stay on the same page and remain clear on company priorities. This focus can crumble when a CEO wears too many hats or when leaders are simply spread too thin.

“When the pandemic first hit, for example, financial leadership was needed most,” explained McAlister. “Organizations with a strong CFO quickly focused on cash flow projections and the Paycheck Protection Program loan. This left the CEO to focus on other strategic matters, like creating 30-, 60-, and 90-day plans. Those CEOs who felt they were either doing everything or that everyone was running in different directions quickly spotted their leadership gaps.”

3. Find ways to reinforce company culture.

Culture can be defined as how employees act when no one is watching. This is certainly true in a WFH situation, in which companies with 500 people in 1 building become 500 separate offices overnight. Great leadership teams kept this top of mind. They remained purposeful with their actions and came up with creative ways to either reinforce the company culture in 500 offices or recognize how that culture needed to shift.

Rather than letting it morph into 500 individual cultures, they evaluated what shifts were necessary and used ongoing communications to reinforce the right activities, behaviors, and sense of security and alignment with the company culture.

4. Offer support to other teams.

We have all endured that safety speech on airplanes before takeoff: First put on your mask, and then help your children put on theirs. There’s a lot to take in and adjust to during a time of rapid and continuous change. Those companies with fully functioning leadership teams were able to quickly get their masks on (figuratively and literally) and then worked to get everyone else’s on.

“After the first several months of the pandemic, it became obvious which leaders were still trying to get their own masks on,” said McAlister. “One CEO described a scenario where his head of operations was inadvertently leading others in the wrong direction because he had not gotten his own mask in place yet.”

5. Communicate transparently (and often).

During the onset of the crisis, well-functioning leadership teams devoted a portion of every day to reaching out to employees—both current employees and those furloughed. They were writing thank-you notes, sending gift cards, and doing daily check-ins. There was no shortage of communication. As the go-forward plan and changes were decided, these leaders helped craft the messaging and disseminated it to the rest of the company. They were available for follow-up questions and advocated for transparency to reduce everyone’s fears.

Pulling It All Together

If your leaders aren’t able to perform these essential actions, your company may not be able to evolve with the times. You may need to strengthen your leadership team—or bring in experienced executive leadership on an interim, part-time, or project basis—to help you adapt to a new environment and lead your company to a stronger future.

Pamela Wasley is a serial entrepreneur who has personally sold two companies and recently led a management buyout of Cerius. She’s an expert in helping companies develop higher shareholder value through the strategic development of rapid growth and profitability opportunities. Her industry experience ranges from technology, telecommunications, medical device, manufacturing and business services. She serves on several private company boards and is a frequent speaker on the topics of talent management, millennials and contingent workforces.