4 roles leaders must be able to play in this 'new normal'

MTN's Paul Norman told Community Conversation attendees what they should expect from their leaders.

MTN Group CHRO and 2019 CHRO of the Year Paul Norman led this week’s Community Conversation, which was hosted in partnership with Workday and focused on leadership in the ‘new normal’.

Paul is one of the most experienced and revered leaders of the people agenda in South Africa and, on Tuesday evening shared some of the lessons he has shared with MTN CEOs across Africa and provided some tips around the role HR leaders should play towards enabling their most senior colleagues.

“What has become clear to me during this time is that there are two factors at play. The first is that employees need to feel emotional support. The second is that leadership needs to be empathetic,” said Paul, adding that in the ‘new normal’, leaders have to bring humanity skills to the fore and there is no function better equipped for enabling that than HR.

He said the pandemic presented a major opportunity in the diversity and inclusion space. Quoting author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek, he said “it's not that we need more female leaders, its that we need for leaders to act like females, as women are just better at that. And there is an opportunity to drive that agenda in the new normal.”

At MTN, they put together a crisis-management team to help leaders navigate the challenges brought upon by the pandemic. This is a cross-functional team made up of supply chain, HR, technology, legal, treasury, and so forth that meets every day to analyse the impact of the pandemic on society and the business. They also meet with the executive committee weekly to keep them up to speed on everything that is going on regarding the pandemic and what they should be thinking about as business leaders.

MTN has distilled all this work done around crisis change management into four roles that every leader has to play whether they are new to the organisation or have been there for a long time – chief clarity officer, resolver in chief, chief empathy officer and chief life coach.

Said Paul: “These are not new roles and, for the most part, we have always known that leaders need to do these things. But we are packaging them in a way that highlights how much more important they have become.”

1 Chief clarity officer

This role is based on the ability to give direction, and steering the ship and has never been more important than it is right now. Paul said the ability to provide vision and focus amid all the disturbance and ambiguity is vital and, at MTN, they have given leaders a preferred channel through which to do this, which is a live broadcast on platforms like MS Teams, whereby all leaders have been encouraged to deliver a message fortnightly.

2 Resolver in chief 

“Because everything has become so much more complex, we realised that inter-functional disconnections can create a lot of problems. The decision-making, speed of execution and ability to collaborate between functions has become a key indicator of success in these times,” said Paul. 

“Those relationships and processes have become so much more complex in this distance economy and, in a way, the leaders have to play a huge role in resolving tensions and perceived obstacles and clogs in the system.”

3 Chief empathy officer

Paul spoke at length about empathy, saying the world needs supernatural humanity right now. With multinational like MTN essentially being a microcosm of the entire African continent and the world at large, Paul said the company has a number of things they are doing in this area, such as requiring leaders to check in with their direct reports via one-on-one engagements and also in group meetings. They are also required to record one-minute micro-videos of positivity for the organisation. 

“Leaders now need to come with candour and empathy because many employees are working while grieving. We need to support them emotionally. Some leaders are not naturally empathetic and that's okay, but you then have to make sure you surround them with people who can fill that gap. Leaders also need to be flexible and adaptable to respond in this VUCA world,” said Paul.

4 Chief life coach 

The chief life coach must help people deal with the difficulties in their lives, which are extremely complex at the moment with many employees are being placed under huge stress. Paul said that with workload and family responsibilities on top of anxiety around health and job security issues, life’s challenges are aplenty and it’s leaders’ responsibility to help employees navigate these challenges. 

“Humility is important because you don't want leaders who act like they have all the solutions and relying entirely on their previous experience. They need to listen actively because listening is as important as leading in these times.”

In closing, Paul said it was important to enhance leaders’ technology competence because tech platforms like Zoom had become “as commonplace as making a cup of coffee nowadays and, if they are well used, leaders can better manage workflow, collaboration and communication.”

Said Paul: “Leaders that are tech-savvy will become crucial in the new world of work. Leaders who best combine technology with empathy will be the most effective in leading productive teams that are working remotely. As HR we have to think about how we set up our leaders to be successful in the future.”

During the breakout session, Momentum Metropolitain acting group human capital executive Dr Dieter Veldsman said he found Paul's presentation extremely insightful and reiterated that it was also important to be cognizant of the fact that leaders themselves are facing the same challenges that employees are dealing with.

"We need to ensure our leaders are equipped to respond with empathy to employees even though they themselves are also experiencing the impact of the pandemic. They are also losing family members to the virus and have close family members that are not coping financially and emotionally” said Dieter

On the point of enhancing technology competence, some HR leaders felt the age of existing leadership posed a challenge. When dealing with leaders who are in their late fifties, for example, it is sometimes the case that there will be a challenge when they are suddenly expected them to allow their people to manage themselves without overbearing supervision after being accustomed to leading a certain way. 

Participants left the conversation with a better grasp of the notion that visible leadership has been one of the key elements separating great leaders from average ones during the current pandemic. They also understood that as HR leaders they have an important role to play in guiding and assisting the leaders of their organisation and to help them provide clarity and empathy.