The importance of aligning commercial strategy with employee engagement as we look beyond COVID

Our people Director Stephanie Corking discusses the importance of aligning commercial strategy with employee engagement as we look beyond the COVID crisis.

Even for the most experienced business leaders, 2020 has been a steep learning curve. The rules of how to operate a business and manage people have been rewritten by the pandemic and leaders have had to adapt and develop strategies in step with changing lockdown limitations, a demanding commercial landscape and tough operational environments.

Many have proven that their skills and experience have prepared them well for managing a business during a crisis. Responding to change, they have made the tough decisions, communicated well and taken a deep dive into key commercial and operational functions to equip themselves for firefighting.

That firefighting has been hard going for longer than we may have hoped. And it isn’t over yet. The key question facing those with leadership responsibility now, therefore, is, do you know how well you’ve managed change during COVID-19? And if you don’t know, why not?

The Importance of Taking a Step Back

On a commercial level, it may seem that knowing how well a leadership team has managed change during the pandemic is a simple enough question to answer. Is the business still profitable? Is there a good sales pipeline? Have customers been retained? These are all questions that can be verified and quantified to build a picture of commercial performance since the pandemic began. But a balance sheet and an order book don’t provide a real picture of performance. For that, organisations need to dig deeper and understand the ways in which the behaviours of their leaders and the decisions made during this time of crisis will affect future success and should inform future strategy.

Unfortunately, few business leaders are investing in taking a step back to assess and learn at the moment because they are focused on getting through the crisis. And many are reluctant to consider their vision or strategy at a time when the future is littered with unknowns. In fact, despite the juggling act that leadership involves during this demanding period, spending time and resource on understanding what’s driving and inhibiting performance and using that knowledge to map out a vision and strategy for recovery, are more important now than ever.

Fundamentally, although the commercial landscape and the operational demands of running a business have changed dramatically since this time last year, the principles of effective leadership have not. Neither has the importance of aligning corporate strategy with people strategy. Understanding how effectively your organisation has managed change this year is the only way to plug any gaps and rectify any areas where performance needs to be improved in preparation for both the challenging commercial conditions of 2021 and the potential benefits of the recovery following COVID-19. And all businesses, no matter how resilient and agile they have been, will need to prepare and plan for what’s ahead.

A 360 review of an organisation’s senior team will help to highlight the strengths of their management approach during COVID and identify any areas of weakness that need to be addressed. By analysing both observational and reputational feedback from a range of internal and external stakeholders, it’s possible to build a picture of where the company’s leaders are handling the crisis well by collaborating across departments and keeping people engaged across the organisation, and where they need to improve across any of those core measurements of performance. In our bespoke 360 assessments, we measure STEP performance – Stress, Trust, Empowerment, Passion – to understand how leaders are shaping, supporting and motivating their teams. This year, more than any other, the ability to respond effectively to the emotional impact of change on a company’s greatest resource – its people – is central to leadership effectiveness and business performance.

Are You Listening?

So how can business leaders ensure they are responding effectively to the emotional impact of change on the staff, their senior team and their own management style, as well as adapting to the commercial and operational demands forced upon them by the pandemic? The answer can be summed up in a single phrase: by listening.

During the pandemic, many organisations have put a significant and consistent emphasis on communication. Change has been constant and safety has been an important priority, so communicating the evolving situation and the latest safety guidelines to customers, staff and supply chains have been vital. All too often, however, communication with staff has been set to broadcast and not nearly enough time and attention has been spent listening to the needs and concerns of employees.

And yet, these are not only the people that have been keeping organisations going during the pandemic; they are also the first line of customer interface, making them a source of valuable insight into the mood of the marketplace and the needs of customers. Often, however, organisations bypass their employee's feedback when it comes to understanding how change is affecting their customers and go straight to the customers themselves. This often means they gain only part of the picture and miss opportunities to respond to customer challenges and pain points because they are only acting upon what the customer chooses to tell them, as opposed to what their employees know.

How is Your Team Doing?

A company’s employees are also the resource that will power its ability to rebuild where needed and capitalise on any opportunities during the post-COVID recovery. Consequently, they are a potential source of insight for planning future vision and strategy on an operational and commercial level because they understand the nuts and bolts of how the company works in a way that those in leadership roles don’t usually need to. While many business leaders may have rolled their sleeves up and got involved in the detail during the crisis, micro-managing every aspect of the business is not practical or sustainable for the senior team in the longer term. Often, moreover, the scrutiny of the leadership team can antagonise managers, particularly if the rationale behind it is not clearly communicated or communication is founded on instruction rather than dialogue.

Instead of telling employees what the company is doing, therefore, leaders need to ask their teams for input in a meaningful way. This means not only asking for their feedback on a practical level but also engaging with them to understand how the pandemic has affected them on an emotional level. The commercial uncertainty that has formed a backdrop to business strategy and performance for a company’s leadership team has also created feelings of insecurity, anxiety and even resentment amongst employees. No-one wants to feel that their job is under threat, nor do they want to have to feel grateful for keeping their job in an environment where extra responsibility comes without any additional reward or recognition. Leaders can only plan strategies to engage, motivate and support employees if they have a true and honest picture of how those employees are feeling about their job and their future. Asking the right questions, will not only deliver useful insight but will also contribute to making employees feel valued because they have been asked.

Engaging with employees on a practical day-to-day level as well as a more strategic HR process level has been tough during the pandemic. Working from home has left many with feelings of isolation and has depersonalised team working for some, making collaboration and communication difficult. We will all remember 2020 as the year of online meetings where it was hard to get a point across as everyone started a sentence at once. The technology has proved difficult to master for some and the lack of non-verbal communication cues has proved challenging for even the most confident of communicators and most experienced of leaders.

That lack of personal interaction makes it even more important now to engage in a structured process of listening to employees across all levels and departments to help inform strategy. Laws of Attraction has recently developed a strategic HR assessment solution designed to improve the relationships within HR and in turn the rest of the business by providing a deep dive analysis and listening to stakeholders from across the entire organisation. Combining technology and consultancy, Vibe HR considers 22 HR pillars and 145 ‘elements’, identifying urgent improvement requirements, longer-term goals and areas of strong performance. This helps with planning across four key areas – strategy, delivery, experience and excellence - allowing leaders to take a step back from firefighting and consider where action is needed.

From Firefighting to Growth

Not every business will need an in-depth and structured employee consultation and business audit; Vibe HR is designed specifically for larger organisations. All organisations can benefit from increased dialogue with employees, however, and an analysis of how the pandemic has affected them. This will not only articulate how well they’ve coped but also what they could have done better. At the heart of effective leadership is the ability to learn, adapt and take people with you. That’s why considered people strategies are so central to commercial success.

As we look ahead to 2021, there’s no denying that the future remains uncertain, but a lack of vision, strategy and planning does not offset that uncertainty; it only exacerbates the impact. By listening to employees and gaining a 360 understanding of how they have managed change, leaders will be in a much stronger position to develop their strategy for 2021 and move beyond firefighting and back to growth.

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