Webinar: What do Leaders need to Unlearn to Succeed in the New Normal

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Reflections from our webinar

The Signium – Stein & Partner team, as part of one of the leading executive search companies in the CEE region, was delighted to have hosted on the 15th of June the second webinar from our Transforming HR series: What do Leaders need to Unlearn to Succeed in the New Normal having as guest speakers: Mrs. Melania Jaravete, HR Director at Cargus Romania, Mrs. Adina Vidroiu, HR Director at Microsoft Romania, Greece, Malta & Cyprus and Mr. Dragos Barbulescu, Deputy General Director and Group CFO at E.ON Romania. The discussion was moderated by Mrs. Raluca Modoran, Senior Leadership & People Advisor within Signium – Stein & Partner.

As we wanted to explore different perspectives from different industries, we invited our guests to an interactive panel conversation, which led to a very insightful collection of reflections.

Here are some of the main thoughts we’ve collected. For the extended conversation, you can access the below recording:

Resilience and humanity are the keys to successfully overcoming difficulties

Management’s approach to the new normal depended heavily on the specific of the industry and of the business. Either they encouraged employees to work remote or focused on ensuring all possible measures so the field employees can continue to work on site, but most companies shared the strategy to focus on maintaining the essential services up and running and at high standards. The success has been driven by a high level of resilience with a profound care for people.

“Due to the specific of our industry, most of our people have been working on site the full time, making sure everyone had power and gas during the very difficult times we’ve had, especially last year in the lockdown. All of us encountered difficulties, both on a personal and business level. Speaking of the latter, the first and most important caution for us was the human aspect: getting in touch, connecting with as many people as we could, providing confidence, reassuring them. Afterwards, we continued building on resilience: we had to make sure we deliver the same services at the same pace.” said Dragos Barbulescu.

“Our company is performing an essential service that has not stopped, even during the lockdown, even if it has been under a lot of pressure. Thus, for the business that meant a complete outlook shift and an adjustment to the new circumstances, as our services were in high demand, and we wanted to maintain our high-quality service standards. Most of our employees could not work remotely, as the vast majority are employed as couriers and sorters, activities that under no circumstances can be performed other than on site. For my courier colleagues, going out every day was a way to connect. The internal feedback I got is that “my smile can be also seen through the mask”. It’s a connection, sometimes you stay at home and the only person you see is the courier knocking at your door. There are clearly a lot of things we have delivered and for them it was a means to keep the interaction.” stated Melania Jaravete.

“We looked for our people and at the same time, we supported our customers as they were also digitalising at a fast pace and going through the same changes. It was an intensive journey for us, and it will continue to be one. I believe that one of the things that helped is that even before the pandemic, we’ve had a framework for all our people managers, based on a coaching approach. We made sure that it is aligned with our leadership principles, with our culture and with our values.” added Adina Vidroiu.

The last 18 months changed the work environment forever

Whether the pandemic has created more job opportunities for some of us, offered others more time with their families, saved commuting time or has forced some to rethink the overall life habits and better plan the working hours, the disruption was tremendous and with long term consequences.

“We should review the entire workforce because the pandemic has impacted every person in every organisation across the globe. It has been more challenging to keep the balance between the personal and professional life and this line between them has become even thinner and the stress on the teams increased substantially. This is accelerating the pressure on the leaders in the companies, because at the end of the day, not only are they humans, but they have been going through the same changes that impacted their colleagues.”, mentioned Adina Vidroiu

Leaders faced deep concerns as pressure was coming from all directions

Maintaining a high level of physical and psychological safety for their team members, keeping a high spirit and connection in the team, delivering business results at the same standards of customer satisfaction, while ensuring a personal and family balance, are things that have generated an immense amount of pressure for leaders.

“At Board level, we were concerned about business continuity, as we had to have continuous supplies in terms of power and gas for all customers, ensuring that everything went smoothly. One third of our people were working from home and they had to transition overnight to this scenario, and the other two thirds were always on site. Thus, we had many challenges at the same time. Finally, it was the pressure, the psychological impact of the crisis on all of us.” Dragos Barbulescu told the audience.

“Leaders’ main concerns were related to adapting to the new business environment, to finding the best ways to deliver business. However, the biggest concern was related to the mental health of the employees and that was a new thing for us. If a few years ago we were talking a lot about benefits, work life balance, how we could do more for people, now endeavours are related to mental health, because in the long run, we all feel, depending on the circumstances, either too disconnected, either too exposed, or both at the same time. Now people have seen our houses, our kids, our pets, and all these things might make us feel exposed, while on the other side we feel completely disconnected because we cannot physically connect with one another, give a pat on the shoulder, a handshake, a hug. We didn’t have that for a while, and somehow it leaves an impact on the team.” added Melania Jaravete.

Great leadership in the new normal means finding the right balance

Different contexts require different leadership capabilities and the last 18 months have required leaders to use their past experience and past successes in an innovative way. Leaders have been in a position to balance business priorities with people needs and to make decisions considering different factors.

“Great leadership in a the new normal is a combination between balancing different perspectives, caring about people and their mental health and finding new ways to connect, especially now with the help of new digital platforms. I strongly believe that people should come first.” stated Dragos Barbulescu.

“I think the profile of a leader during these times and moving forward, is mainly related to knowing how to apply concepts of business continuity, to finding best ways to adapt, to showing flexibility to changing circumstances and to different business requirements, to caring for people and making sure they are involved in the middle of each decision. Basically, it is a matter of finding the right balance between the requirements of the business and the requirements of the team. I would also add that we should not forget that leaders are also people who might struggle individually in ways we could not grasp. I believe that showing people that leaders are humans too is a new thing and I guess it’s the 1st time in our company that employees understood that our CFO is also cooking at some moment in time. Showing vulnerability and openly sharing the same challenges is what brought us together and helped us stay connected.” mentioned Melania Jaravete

“We continue to embed our model-coach-care framework. When we say model, our presumption from every manager in the company is to demonstrate strength of character. They are role models for the culture, for the values and also for the leadership principles that we have. They are the ones setting the tone, and their words and actions are leading the organisation and their team members to integrity. Coaching, although commonly used, means for us that they need to assist their colleagues to develop that sense of shared purpose and to create that energy level within their teams, by supporting them on a day-to-day basis. We know that managers who create high engaged teams have a higher productivity. Nevertheless, the part that was more critical was the care one, because fundamentally the role of a people manager is to care about others, not only about their team members but also about other peers they are interacting with across the organisation. They are the ones who are building on and finding the right talents and the ones who are creating that environment where people can open up. And this was paramount during this period, even when observing the conversations we’ve had, the shift focused from “what are you doing?” to “how are you feeling?”, “how are you today?”, and the answers were more related to the personal life. They needed to be equipped for that and this is what we’ve done. It wasn’t easy. It’s still a journey. At the very end of the day, leaders, managers, are also people that have a personal life back home.” said Adina Vidroiu.

Leadership with a touch of vulnerability

After centuries of a leadership model in which one should look bright, powerful, and always know-it-all in order to succeed, leaders have recently been in a position to admit they are humans too and vulnerable in front of their teams. Is that the best thing to do, to be successful in the new normal?

“I think it depends on the cultural organization that you are part of and even if you are aiming to show your vulnerability, your story needs to be intentional. In Microsoft this is part of our Diversity & Inclusion strategy plan, which is about having inclusive behaviours and being mindful of the things that happen within the organisation. And what we have done in the last year, and even before, is that we have been intentional, and it started with the leadership team sharing more about themselves. We’ve tried to put a great emphasis on the mental health in an attempt to cast away the stigma related to it, especially in Romania. It was an effort aimed to educate our people that it’s ok to share the stories they have behind. So, creating that space and flexibility and sharing that it’s ok not to be ok, coming from the leadership team and then being cascaded across the organisation, definitely helped during this period.” mentioned Adina Vidroiu.

“I think they can, and they should!  I don’t believe it’s something that was expected but rather it was something that came naturally and helped create the connection. Leaders observed it works and they considered wise to keep on doing it.  I would also add that we must keep up with the times. Now people are expecting a completely different version of their managers: they want them to be involved and truthful.” added Melania Jaravete

“Even before the pandemic we had the value of care within the organisation, which has been translated in a number of actions, but now it has been raised to a new level of complexity, with new challenges which are more comprehensive than we actually thought they could be. I would encourage every company to have this aspect taken care of. It’s a need and a must for this period and for the times to come.”, stated Dragos Barbulescu

What do leaders need to unlearn to be successful in the new normal?

“I think leaders need to unlearn that they do not always have to show a perfect image because it is an unrealistic level of expectations. The more you show of yourself, the more truthful and authentic you become.” answered Melania Jaravete.

“If we look at the new hybrid model of work, I consider that leaders will need to meet with new employees’ expectations: connecting a more distributed workforce and also providing the tools to renovate and work together, while at the same time being inclusive. The hybrid work will present more challenges, especially when it comes to organisations that have their employees working in different cities or countries, operating in different time zones.  In my opinion, it’s important for leaders to be more intentional about creating that space for those inclusive conversations and to define ways on how they work together, while bearing in mind the aspect of flexibility which will be mandatory in balancing the work life.

I would not necessarily say that they need to unlearn something, because the context pushed them to learn new things, like managing teams remote. I think it’s more about re-learning how to connect with their teams, how to focus on the relationships they already built, how to maintain the work life balance, what it means for employees to work in a hybrid model, how flexible can you be, how mindful can you be, because at the end of the day we will also have in mind the productivity that is there” added Adina Vidroiu.

“We need to re-learn how to reconnect with the team, especially in dealing with this new way of flexible working. Some people will want to return more to the office, while others prefer to work more from home, and it’s a challenge that will require flexibility from all parts” concluded Dragos Barbulescu.

One thing is clear, we’re still in a transition, exploring new behaviours, new approaches, testing and failing, surprisingly achieving things we wouldn’t have imagined possible. And in this journey, we intentionally and conscientiously learn, unlearn and re-learn those traits which help us succeed in this new normal.

It was a tremendous pleasure and an honour to have had the opportunity to explore these aspects with our speakers, which brought clear, applicable, and sustainable recommendations for our leaders. If you would like a deeper dive into the conversation we had with them, kindly access the embedded recording of our webinar.

If you would like to further discuss on this topic or others related to human capital advisory, please contact our colleague Raluca Modoran, Senior Leadership & People Advisor.