by Vanessa Cox, Executive Coach and Partner, The Preston Associates

When we coach executive boards / senior leadership teams, we like to use a simple and quick exercise to anchor commitment to a seemingly daunting strategic plan.

We provide a list of quotes around “Being bold” and ask the team members to choose the quote that most resonates with them and exemplifies the “war cry” for what they are embarking on. The above quote in our title (by Robert Frost) is the one most often chosen by these teams. Yearning to be free is a strong motivational factor for many across levels of hierarchy, across cultural differences and in every economic context. 

At a time when organisations are dealing with what appears to be the biggest challenge of our generation: surviving and thriving in the “new normal” – the ramifications of living with Covid for the foreseeable future, this need to feel free is palpable. 

All large organisations have “crisis” playbooks and procedures which entail devolving decision making during the crisis to one key function (usually finance) to take the lead across the business in order to react fast. Covid is rewriting these playbooks with other functions (e.g Technology Engineering, Human Ressources / Health & Safety, etc) taking the lead in reshaping their organisations. Smaller, more agile “dynamic growth” businesses are learning for the first time that there is a need for both crisis management in the here and now combined with strategic planning for the new normal.

Leaders today are fully aware that they will be judged by how they have steered their business through the Covid pandemic and how their organisation can thrive through the changes they were forced to make, very quickly, in how they function. Putting the health and safety of their employees and customers at the very top of the leadership agenda is creating a new focus which will have long lasting implications on the work environment and culture of any business.

The need to implement changes at the pace required today has liberated organisations by making the previously impossible necessary and urgent and buy-in for these changes is achieved through the highly emotional factor of providing safety to all their stakeholders. 

Purpose provides direction

Read any post, article or blog around successful leadership through this pandemic today and the unifying message is that a business that truly lives its purpose, has a deep sense of belonging to society as a whole and lives a culture of collaboration and empowerment is successfully navigating todays challenges. Purpose provides direction and as businesses pivot what they do and change how they do it, they are able to do so only if their sense of purpose is deeply anchored within their organisation and their employees are motivated and engaged by it. Those businesses which have been setting standards regarding social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency for many years, and have invested in being purpose driven for a long time are proving to be more successful in steering their business through the roller coaster of Covid.19. In the food industry for example today, they additionally have an increase in pride as their employees are deemed “essential workers” alongside all the healthcare, energy, utility and safety professionals. Technology businesses too have an increase of a sense of pride as their agility mindset and ways of working are helping them to succeed in this context, faster and with more impact than ever before.

The leaders in the companies we coach in and have been supporting through the pandemic are all describing how this sense of pride is energising themselves and those they lead and counterbalancing the sense of being overwhelmed by uncertainty. Having invested in purpose driven and empowering leadership for many years – in themselves and others, they are finding it easier to challenge assumptions and take risk. They are listening to those closest to the problem and listening to their suggestions and solutions, they are being bold in their decisions, more willing to try fast, fail fast, learn and adapt – out of necessity and urgency. While these all seemed like buzzwords and nice concepts yesterday, today they see these behaviours in action. 

Being open to the new, fuels innovation

Justifying all that you do by ensuring the safety of those around you, is emotionally engaging. Feeling your contribution to society is essential, brings out your sense of commitment. Accepting the “going with the not knowing” decreases pressure. Being open to the new, fuels innovation. Pride in tangible and immediately perceived impact encourages you. All this is being lived at dizzying pace today. And it is liberating. 

Experiencing freedom in this context means that we will strive to remain free in the future. This is the most fundamental change leaders and those they lead will want to retain. This shapes our organisational culture for the generations to follow.