For many of us, the last year has been, frankly, awful. In business and in our personal lives, the pandemic presented challenges that at times felt too heavy to bear. No matter how lucky, protected and safe we managed to stay, no individual — and no business — emerged unscathed.
We certainly don’t want to tell anyone they should be making lemonade from this bitter brew. But we do think it’s important to look closely at our experiences of the last year, both personal and professional, and ask ourselves what we have learned. Only by understanding these insights can individuals and organizations move forward from this challenging time with a mindset of growth.
In this spirit, we spoke with Leandra Harris, our managing director and co-founder, who says she has seen a profound shift in the many executives she works with in recent months. While it has been a painful time, Harris says she has been deeply encouraged by the changes this period has sparked for CEOs, CHROs and others who define organizations’ culture and shape the experiences of countless employees.
We asked Harris to share what she’s seeing in her conversations with these executives as they prepare to emerge from the pandemic. These are a few of her top takeaways:
Their vulnerability is making them stronger.
During the pandemic, meetings with executives have taken on an entirely different tone. Accomplished leaders — usually so perfectly controlled and steady — have burst into tears, expressed uncertainty, and spoken at length about their frustrations and fears. Through it all there have been children in the background, with the chaos of home life on display.
This kind of unraveling doesn’t feel good, but Harris believes that for many executives it is the first step toward improving the resiliency and strength of their organizations.
“Vulnerability is a critical quality in a leader,” Harris says. “It creates authenticity and transparency — the sense that you’re really seeing who someone is. People like seeing that emotion from leaders because it helps them feel safe and inspired.”
As uncomfortable as this vulnerability can be, Harris says it’s essential that leaders take intentional steps to bring it into their interactions with their organization’s leadership. This can be done by sharing their own emotional struggles and their own passions and motivations — and inviting others to do the same. This kind of openness can help leaders across the organization create a feeling of safety and connection on their teams — ultimately leading to elevated satisfaction, increased morale, and improved outcomes.
They envision a new future.
Before the pandemic, when we asked executives to describe the culture they envisioned for their organization, we consistently heard words like accountability, follow-through, continuous improvement, agility, and innovation.
Now, all that has changed. Looking into the future for their organizations, executives no longer envision a perfectly functioning machine, but a flourishing organism. They still value agility and innovation, but now they speak at length about creating a culture of caring, and about helping employees to develop entrepreneurial characteristics such as curiosity, courage, and a desire to learn.
We’ve seen that this deeper way of thinking about culture can yield profound results, ultimately creating meaningful employee experiences in which every member of an organization can experience profound growth and fulfillment — improving business outcomes, increasing retention, and making recruitment easier as well.
They’re primed to create true change.
Nowhere is this newfound vulnerability more evident than in leaders’ conversations about the DEI challenges they are facing as they struggle to build a welcoming and just environment for their employees.
While before many would have felt pressure to respond to any crisis with confidence, they are now more tentative and all too aware of all they don’t know.
“They want to do something, but they just don’t know what to do and how to make sure it’s enough. They’re afraid of coming off as inauthentic,” she says. “And that kind of admission is the first step to centering the experiences of diverse employees.”
From this place of vulnerability, leaders are well positioned to begin to do the uncomfortable work of learning and listening. (For more thoughts on where they can go from there, read our recent white paper on DEI strategy.)
They’re ready to embrace failure.
For a long time, most executives felt they needed to project a facade of success, no matter what was going on beneath the surface.
Now, increasingly, executives are willing to acknowledge failures, and many are speaking about how an openness to failure can free their employees to be braver and more innovative.
This shift also improves recruitment outcomes and retention, Harris says.
“If you want to attract and retain the best people, having a rigid culture where no mistakes are tolerated is not going to work,” she says. “If you want your employees to be courageous, you have to make it a safe environment in which to fail.”
They see their talent differently.
During the pandemic, executives have seen in real time the impact that human upheaval can have on an organization. With the possibility of a Great Resignation looming, they’re reevaluating how they think about employee experience, and are rededicating themselves to building morale through culture improvements and a better understanding of employee needs.
With a new sense of how important it is to create a company culture that speaks to each employee on a personal level as well as a professional one, many companies are embarking on thorough research projects to better understand the unspoken needs and desires of their employees.
Executives are increasingly aware that employees have gone through their own reckoning during the pandemic, and many are looking for deeper fulfillment from their work and for more kinds of support and care from their employers. Companies seeking to boost their retention in this shifting labor marketplace will need to invest in culture improvements and an Employee Value Proposition (EVP) that resonates with future candidates — an investment that will pay dividends only if it’s accompanied by authentic changes in employee experience, not just updated recruitment marketing.
Blu Ivy Group is a global leader in employer branding, organizational culture, and recruitment marketing. We help organizations across the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors build extraordinary employee experiences, magnetic employer brands and high-performance cultures.
From C-Suite to Employer Brand and Talent Acquisition leadership, we partner with our clients to transform their organizations and design the most compelling workplaces of the future.
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