Leadership through communication: Six things leaders can control in 2022

As the world enters the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, making predictions seems riskier than opening a lunch counter in a food court.

There are three big reasons for this. The first is projection bias: the assumption that our current emotions, habits and preferences will continue indefinitely, or that we’ll automatically snap back to earlier attitudes and behaviour. The second is the persistence of events that humanity can influence but not control — from extreme weather to new variants of viruses. The third is the continuing holding pattern as we wait for the pandemic to recede — which renders our list of 2021 trends as relevant today as they were a year ago.

If leaders are feeling uncertain, that’s understandable. In times of crisis and change, we fear not having autonomy or influence over the events disrupting our lives. For 2022, therefore, we focus on the things leaders can control — no matter what lies ahead.

1. Develop your leadership superpowers: empathy and agility

The challenge: Since many leadership roles can be done from computers and desks, many leaders have weathered the pandemic in relative comfort. Meetings are scheduled by videoconference. Spontaneous encounters with stakeholders are rare; this means fewer challenges to our assumptions, and a higher risk of tunnel vision, groupthink and tone-deaf communication — all of which create risk. Adding to the challenge, new research suggests 76 per cent of people do not believe brands understand their problems.

The opportunity: In both your habits and your processes, foster an atmosphere of constructive challenge. Bring external advisors or “naïve experts” — those with expertise in another field who will ask the naïve questions — into your meetings. Challenge your team to bring an empathy ‘lens’ to planning: What are our stakeholders experiencing now? What is causing them anxiety or stress and how can we relieve it? How can we add value, and exceed their expectations? Finally, set aside communications resources for experimentation and innovation. This allows your team to be agile, acting on what they have learned.

2. Let your stakeholders influence you – genuinely

The challenge: Since 2016, Argyle has been measuring the health of relationships between brands and their stakeholders. In 2021, we looked at North Americans’ assessments of their own employers. We saw strong marks for the way employers handled the pandemic, and for their environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance. As Blackrock’s Larry Fink notes in his 2022 Letter to CEOs: “Employees are increasingly looking to their employer as the most trusted, competent, and ethical source of information – more so than government, the media, and NGOs.” In the Argyle/Leger study, however, employers had one big weakness: employees do not believe they can influence their employers’ decisions or direction. External stakeholders feel the same way.

The opportunity: Whether a stakeholder is internal or external, a healthy relationship relies on a robust, ongoing listening and engagement program. The more essential the stakeholder, the more you need to involve them in a dialogue on long-term value creation. Be firm on your values and principles, but be prepared to give them influence over some of the details and decisions. Finally, show them how you have acted — or will act — on their counsel.

3. Convene your team: More of the joy, less of the grind

The challenge: A year ago, many were predicting the demise of the physical office, driven by the assumption that all aspects of white-collar work could be done remotely. The reality is much more nuanced: corporate culture has been a casualty of the pandemic, and redefining it must be a priority. In addition, touch deprivation is real: humans are social animals who need to be together. Without it, work becomes transactional, and organizations easy to leave. That means the office is as necessary as ever — but its role will evolve.

The opportunity: One of a leader’s greatest assets is the power to convene — to bring people together for dialogue, work or play. Wise leaders will use it thoughtfully, balancing giving workers much-needed flexibility in managing the day-to-day ‘grind’ of work, while choosing when and how to bring people together – face to face, side by side – to build the relationships and trust that drive creativity and collaboration. I have an eight-word aspiration for the future role of the office: more of the joy, less of the grind. Let it be a place not just to work side by side, but also to do work together.

4. Don’t let “normality” become complacency

The challenge: How often do we hear people talk about doing something “when things get back to normal,” or about waiting to understand the “new normal?” Like most cliches, these phrases have become inert, devoid of meaning and value. Worse, they create built-in excuses for delay or inaction. And worst of all, the “normality” of pre-pandemic business was complacency — about economic and social inequities, climate urgency, and the growing list of risks that catch leaders by surprise. In PwC’s 2021 Global Crisis Survey, 95 percent of business leaders reported that their crisis capabilities need improvement, and that breaking down silos was critical. Many organizations have no crisis plans in place; some have crisis plans but never look at them. Both are highly vulnerable to a crisis — be it from an internal action or external event.

The opportunity: Research shows the biggest impact of a crisis comes from how well you respond on day one. That’s why leaders need to change the way they view crisis preparation. It’s not just about having a plan; it’s about testing your plan regularly and honing your team’s systems, capabilities, skills and psyche. Invest in creating or updating your plan, testing it through simulation across all silos, and giving leaders frequent practice to keep their instincts sharp. Finally, involve internal and external advisors in a dialogue on threats to business sustainability not just in the next quarter, but in the next decade.

5. Communicate your purpose – through foundational stories

The challenge: There’s now lots of literature about the business value of being driven by a purpose beyond the bottom line — and both communicating and acting on it. In our days of Zoom meetings, work risks becoming transactional. We retreat into the here and now, the urgent issue that needs to be managed, or the question that needs to be answered. We risk losing sight of the ‘why.’

The opportunity: Having worked with a lot of leaders, I counsel them to develop five types of foundational stories. These could include: (1) How we started, and why we’re here; (2) Our point of pride, and emblematic successes; (3) Our core values in action; (4) Our moments of truth, including how we learn from failure; and (5) The world we want: our vision of the future. Know these stories. Tell them through words and images. Share them to build affinity with those around you today, and those whom you aspire to attract tomorrow. Remember also that the purpose of communication isn’t to get people to click on content; it’s to build affinity and relationships that earn confidence, trust, support, advocacy and business value.

6. ESG and global citizenship: Go beyond compliance to leadership

The challenge: In Fink’s 2022 Letter to CEOs, he dispels the idea that stakeholder capitalism is about politics, ideology or image. “In today’s globally interconnected world,” he writes, “a company must create value for and be valued by its full range of stakeholders in order to deliver long-term value for its shareholders.” The risk is when purpose sounds like a marketing slogan, misaligned with credible, consistent action. Research has shown that ESG performance is the top driver of trust in an organization, and of whether the organization gets the benefit of the doubt in a crisis. It’s the third biggest influence on a decision to purchase, and the second biggest on a decision to recommend.

The opportunity: Compliance is a floor. At a time of transition, disruption, and unprecedented access to capital, the opportunity is to elevate your organization; in short, to lead. As noted above, this begins with understanding your stakeholders’ expectations and making strategic choices about where you can exceed them over the long term. Where should you look? With many organizations making similar commitments to net-zero emissions, and corporate governance principles well established, we believe the “social” domain — the “S” in ESG — is the next major frontier of global citizenship and where the greatest opportunities for differentiation and impact lie.

At a time when so much is uncertain, 2022 is a time for leaders to control what they can. Leaders who do this are more likely to influence the people and communities around them – for mutual benefit.

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