Standard Chartered Bank's Millicent Clarke on the need to lead the leaders

The Regional Head of HR for Africa Middle East (AME) says it's all about the 3 Cs.

You may as well rip up your ‘terms of employment’ because Covid-19 has taken us back to the drawing board. The pandemic has forced us to completely reevaluate the concept of a ‘9 to 5’ and being in the office on a daily basis. It’s safe to say that remote working isn’t going anywhere. More and more organisations are adopting a flexible working model for the long term and, while many employees have embraced it, many have also struggled. From working parents fighting to balance deadlines with childcare, to employees working around the clock and not being able to ‘switch off’, there doesn’t seem to be a one-size-fits-all approach.

This corporate seesaw has left employees across the globe with bouts of stress and anxiety. As such, leaders must find the right balance for their organisations in order to protect the wellbeing of their teams. In fact, studies have shown that employees with a stable and secure working experience report a positive increase in efficiency, which is ultimately the goal for any people leader.

One thing became exceptionally clear during the height of the pandemic: the need for strong leadership in times of drastic change. Amid increased uncertainty and instability, it was more important than ever for organisations to take a compassionate, and dare I say, personal approach to leadership. So, as we enter into an era of which conventional workplace paradigms no longer apply, how are leaders able to effectively navigate this novel working world?

Courage, compassion and communication

Courage. Courage is an element that leaders have always required an abundance of, from daily decisions on fine margins to creating and implementing a broad corporate vision. The courage needed now from leaders can have even bigger impacts in times of uncertainty. Employees are looking to the top for direction, a vision and a plan, to guide them through and out of this situation.

Compassion. Compassion has never been more important for effective leadership. It ensures that leaders are able to approach the issues and concerns of their people with a degree of humanity and humility, and, above all, ensures that their people are heard. Numerous studies show that compassionate leaders perform better and foster more loyalty and engagement across their teams, specifically amid crises.[2] This, in turn, translates well to any decision-making concerning the wider organisation as leaders must earnestly address the needs of their workforce.

Coupled with uncertainty and unprecedented challenges, compassion and understanding are paramount to any decision-making process, including those concerning flexible and remote work. A leader is often defined by how they make people feel. That’s what employees will always remember, above any small incentives or perks to work. I would challenge every leader to ask themselves: how do you think you make your employees feel, especially during these difficult times?

Communication. Communication has changed and its necessity certainly has too. Nothing will ever compare to a face-to-face meeting and the simplicity of this which was so often taken for granted. We are communicating and connecting more, now, than ever before. But are the endless video calls compensating for the lack of face-to-face interaction, trying to mask over the uncertainties which come from working remotely?

In my role as the bank’s regional Head of Human Resources for Africa and the Middle East, assuming responsibility for over 25 different markets has truly highlighted the importance of regular updates and communications with team members and the wider organisation. My team and I took to sharing important messages through digital channels and mobile applications. Internal sessions are also being organised through accessible, virtual platforms, ensuring a robust communicative function.

My advice here is simple – over-communicate. Don’t allow room for worry, doubt or the unknown to create rumours and panic. Overshare information but do it efficiently – nobody wants another long video conferencing call added to their diary.

A focus on change

We have courage, compassion, and communication, but one last ‘C’ remains: change. The current situation has forced employers and organisations across all industries to face an unprecedented situation, one that calls for an inherent dependence on technology. As leaders look to derive the benefits of technology on their bottom-line, they must first instil a digital culture and corresponding values within their workforce. A digitally-centred mindset can reflect greatly on an organisation’s ability to foster idea generation and creates opportunities for employees to co-create and ideate.

Six months ago, many people had never of heard of Blue Jeans or Microsoft Teams – now it’s how we do business and is the standard medium for communicating, sharing and ideating across global organisations. Of course, most leaders have that natural drive and determination to learn new skills, but, for others, it can be jarring to adapt to new skills which come naturally to a young adult. In my experience, a company’s HR team plays a vital role in aiding employees through this digital divide.

At Standard Chartered, we’ve implemented a forward-looking, digital mindset into our everyday operations and continue to champion our digital agenda across all fronts of our business. Through training programmes, communicative efforts, progressive technological tools and internal policies, any institution is able to adopt a digital approach to their workplace and reap a myriad of benefits.

Making the work, work

While there’s no perfect solution to unprecedented working challenges, best practice can still be maintained. Simple reminders can be shared with employees, whether its tips on working from home or safely returning to the office. These are areas we are managing across our regional offices where we have to adapt to each country and culture. For example, although many of our teams in Africa initially struggled with remote working due to network issues, it is getting progressively better as network providers are increasing their bandwidth. In our Middle East markets, it has been much easier working from home.

Either way, there is no one-size-fits-all model, and this is what leaders need to realise. The takeaway I will leave you with is that an organisation is only as efficient, operational, and productive as its team. Leaders must adapt and adopt a working model that addresses the needs of their people – a vital element to safeguarding the integrity of their workforces.