Community Conversation: HR leaders reflect on what they're doing right

This week's Community Conversation was about paying attention to the silver lining. 

This week’s CHRO Community Conversation, which was sponsored by Workday, saw leadership coach, Novo founder, and former CHRO SA managing director Graham Fehrsen lead a discussion that put a positive spin on the lockdown. 

Graham said that, as part of the research he was doing in partnership with leadership coaching service provider Cerro, they had spoken to over 100 top business leaders in South Africa, UK and the United States to get a sense of the things that leaders have been doing well personally since the beginning of the lockdown.

While the responses have been varied there are four key themes to have emerged from asking leaders what they were doing well at a personal level. 

“At a time when the vast majority of people are experiencing some of their highest levels of stress and uncertainty it’s perhaps not surprising to see some consistent themes. Among all but a small percentage of respondents listed self-care, compassion, and communication among to top behaviours that they have exhibited in their response to the crisis,” said Graham.

The following four themes emerged from his research and the discussion that ensued about the positive side of Covid-19:

1 Self-care

A key theme emerging from Graham’s work was ‘self-care’ with “one executive telling me she often locked herself in a room with no books, no phone, no journal – just to relax.”

PPC group HR executive Phindokuhle Mohlala said she had also prioritised self-care, particularly when it came to the food she was eating. 

“With everyone at home, it is very easy to get into the habit of opening the fridge or going into the pantry to eat whatever is most convenient and tasty. But I have made sure that, in our home, we watch what we’re eating and are very disciplined about exercise time. We all spend an hour every morning being active,” she said. 

2 Family time

Another positive side-effect of lockdown that HR leaders have noticed was increased compassion and implementation of family values. All the attendees said that being at home had allowed them to connect more with their own families and be present in ways that were not possible when they spent the majority of workdays at the office

“I was able to attend all my children’s parent-teacher conferences for the first time in years, and that was something that I really appreciated about being at home,” said Blessing Utete, executive director at Momentum Consultants and Actuaries.

Wesbank HR executive Phila Zondeki was equally grateful. 

"I have young adults living with me and they are quite uncomfortable with the current situation of not being able to move around. I love that I’m able to spend more time with them, to talk about their feelings regarding the status quo and reassuring them. I’ve taken this opportunity to remind them not to forget about the personal plans they had before Lockdown, as we are definitely not going to be on Lockdown forever. That has somewhat helped them to move from a doom-and-gloom mindset to one that is more forward-looking.”

3 Better internal communication patterns 

Numerous executives also felt that communication habits within their organisations had improved. Phindokuhle said that, with more leaders taking time for self-reflection, she had noticed how even disagreements had become more cordial.

“We are all more considerate and aware of safeguarding the collective mindset of the organisation. If someone says something that may not have been well-received, it is not uncommon for that individual to come back later and apologise to the aggrieved person.”

Tiger Brands HR executive S’ne Magagula says one of the positive things she’s done is to  try to connect with people outside the formal team calls, explaining that working throughout the lockdown period as an essential service can take its toll on staff.

“I’ve developed a habit of having one-on-one catch up calls with individual members of my team outside our team calls and starting these catch-ups with a check-in on how they are doing  and coping with pressures of juggling work and home-life as well as checking how I can support them further. I find it creates even more of a connection than just sticking to a team call”.

When it comes to boundaries, attendees of the conversation said they were learning to allow themselves to switch off and were encouraging others in their teams not send emails after hours. 

Blessing agreed, saying that emailing people in the middle of the night and on weekends puts undue pressure on employees.

“Some employees will feel anxious if they receive an email in the middle of the night or weekend and think ‘if the leadership is working extra hours then why am Into doing the same?’ So it’s important for us to lead from the front in terms of setting those boundaries,” he said.

4 Decisionmaking

Another trend that Graham picked up among leaders was their approach to decision-making. He said the way leaders are thinking about horizons had changed because Covid-19 had shortened the foreseeable outlook. 

“With change happening so quickly, leaders are having to adjust their approach to goal setting. I’ve also spoken to many leaders who said they were more prepared to change their minds than ever before, which is quite interesting considering that leaders a typically people who have strong convictions,” said Graham. 

“But because nobody has ever been through this before, it is simply unwise to approach the situation as if one knows the answers. The cost of making the wrong decision is so high and leaders are aware that they have to take every viewpoint into consideration. Also, we are now at a point where a lot of the decisions that are being made cannot be undone”

Phindokuhle added: “The listening skills of our team have also improved drastically because there is nobody who can say their opinion or idea is more valid than another because we are all in foreign territory. I think that is going to be one of the big positives that will stay with us once the crisis is over.”

Regarding how she was navigating this unchartered territory, Webber Wentzel HR director Rachel Masuku said she trusted her gut. She said there is “nobody you can ask for advice as nobody has been through what we are facing as a community and as a country. Nobody can tap into their past experience to advise others.” 

Because the pandemic has levelled the learning playing field, Rachel said it had enabled everyone to learn at the same time and to become open to new learning experiences. 

“The ability for organisations to adapt to change is at an all-time high. So I’ve been presenting ideas to our executive committee that are based on my gut feeling. I lay out all my cards on the table in a transparent manner in terms of what I think, explaining my reasoning for the direction I feel we should be taking and, thankfully, they  appreciate the transparency and are willing to co-create solutions. There is no judgment based on expected prior learning.”

In the end, the CHRO Community Conversation was well received, with attendees appreciating the glass-half-full angle of the discussion.