Adjusting for Uncertainty
It’s Time to Rethink Leadership as New Expectations Redefine a Post-Pandemic World
ILLUSTRATION BY PETE RYAN
IMAGE SOURCE/GETTY IMAGES
Forget business as usual.
The global pandemic and ensuing economic uncertainty have forever reshaped the way the world works—from paused projects to newly virtual teams. Nearly half of employees worked from home during the pandemic, according to a Eurofound survey. And in the United States, 42 percent of the labor force currently works from home—and remote workers now account for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, according to data from Stanford University. The new reality demands a new age of leadership. Project leaders must look beyond today’s challenges to embrace potential opportunities while also tending to team members whose lives have been turned up-side down, says Ruchika Godha, COO of technology implementation firm Advaiya, Udaipur, India.
“Not only has COVID-19 disrupted work lives, but it has also upended personal lives,” she says.
Project leadership in the post-COVID world will require tremendous fortitude—and demonstrating flexibility, candor and resourcefulness will be critical.
“There are no guarantees for the future and no realistic outlook about the new professional environment after COVID-19, except that it will be completely different,” says Marco De Santis, PMP, project manager, digital transformation project management office, Tim HR Services, Rome, Italy.
While there may be no guarantees, there are smart strategies project professionals can follow to help futureproof their careers—and their organizational portfolio. Here are four ways to step up in an uncertain future.
Behavioral skills are ones to master for the post-COVID world because there is so much uncertainty and ambiguity, but project managers are still expected to deliver results and value, says De Santis.
That includes one’s speed to learn and adapt based on new information, multifaceted thinking that recognizes there’s more than one approach to solving a problem—and the determination to not give up, despite obstacles. Those behavioral skills complement people skills, from active listening to creative problem-solving.
Still, managers may have lost the incentive to cultivate them in recent years, as many organizations sought specific hard skills, such as big data analysis and internet of things specialization, with the goal of increasing profit margins while reducing costs.
The abrupt rise of remote work, however, has demonstrated that technical competencies are not enough, De Santis says. Because workers have experienced an avalanche of sudden, radical change, leaders must show empathy and flexibility to keep teams engaged and motivated. The very best technical skills need to be augmented by highly evolved communication skills and a strong sense of connection to keep projects on track.
Moreover, as colleagues are hired, onboarded and continue to work remotely, leaders need to be more present and transparent to bridge the virtual gap, says Carrie Fletcher, PMP, vice president, people and experience, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
“We truly are in this together and leaders need to show that empathy and vulnerability now more than ever to make the connection with their team,” she says. “Connected people will be productive people.”
De Santis agrees. Leaders “must know how to communicate effectively, listen actively, work in a group and manage stress, time and conflict,” he says. As such, they should seek out training related to listening techniques, trust-building and overall emotional intelligence.
“An effective, dynamic and modern leader should be a rock for his or her team,” De Santis says. “Every company that wants to compete in the future needs managers with strong people skills.”
Grow With the Flow
Even before COVID-19, the rise of automation and artificial intelligence in project management was shifting how project professionals approach fundamental processes such as documentation and risk management. In response, project leaders need to embrace a growth mindset—an ethos and understanding that people will continue to learn and polish higher-level skill sets, including problemsolving, critical thinking and creativity. These timeless skills can replace others as they become obsolete.
Such evolution will be necessary amid post-COVID uncertainty. As leaders are forced out of their comfort zones, they must firmly plant their feet in a new reality and develop resilience.
“The post-pandemic reality will require dynamic leaders who can react and make decisions in environments filled with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity,” says Alejandro Aramburu, PMP, Latin America project management office head, NEC Corp., San Luis, Argentina.
—Alejandro Aramburu, PMP, NEC Corp., San Luis, Argentina
To turn that vision into muscle memory, project leaders must commit to rapid and relentless learning, cultivating a wide-ranging curiosity, simplifying complexity and adapting quickly.
“Taking time as a leader for yourself is key to maintaining your resilience,” Fletcher says. “If you aren’t resilient, how can you expect your team members to be? Recognize your stress behaviors and acknowledge them, hold yourself accountable. This will go a long way with your team.”
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The only certainty about the post-COVID world: Everything will be different. Organizations that were clinging tightly to long-established norms now have even more incentive to finally break free of red tape and hierarchy. Project leaders could benefit from embodying a flexible mindset as they respond to new digital transformation demands—and learning how to more readily adapt to new realities can ease the transition, Godha says.
“Having different skills is essential even more so now, as the entire world almost came to a standstill with the lockdown across the globe, and there was an immediate need for companies to start working remotely while being productive and developing capabilities in a multitude of areas,” she says. “This made project management, cloud computing and analytics highly coveted skills to help facilitate technology adoption and digital transformation.”
Firms that are lagging must forge new processes, techniques and tools for remote work environments and virtual leadership, even if they create a radically different workplace than what existed before 2020. “Flexibility and an open mind are the most important items in a manager’s toolbox when facing the new scenario introduced by COVID,” says De Santis.
Post-pandemic teams will thrive if they can adapt—flexing their gymnastic mindset when a setback strikes, rather than pressing pause on project momentum.
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As organizations gradually emerge from crisis mode, senior executives will likely press project managers to make up for lost time and revenue by pushing forward with ambitious plans. But in order to deliver project value, leaders must focus on fewer, better goals—and convince the C-suite to follow suit.
Many project leaders already developed the ability to make tough strategic decisions as the pandemic hit. At Advaiya, Godha watched as clients initially pressed pause on large investments and projects focused on technology experimentation to focus on core operations during the emergence of COVID-19. As a result, she and other leaders had to realign capabilities and zero in on digital initiatives related to business process automation and data integration to continue delivering value.
As the pandemic recedes and companies begin reinventing their futures, project leaders must mirror those efforts by concentrating on a company’s purpose, determining exactly what is necessary to deliver the most benefits and then executing, rather than chasing a host of disparate, flimsy goals with less clarity. PM
“I personally believe that what is most important in leadership is having a the right kind of drive and taking responsibility. You can connect the dots between strategic vision and on-the-ground execution, and you’re willing to get your hands dirty and put in the work. The pandemic has made this even more clear: that being a leader isn’t about being in front and coming up with the dream. Really, it means you’re a finisher, making sure the job gets done.”
—Amila Dissa Aluthwala, PMI-RMP, PMP, senior manager, network implementation, Mobitel
“People need connection now more than ever, and not just connection via yet another video conference call—true human connection, where when someone says, ‘How are you doing?’ they really want to know how are you doing? Be an authentic leader with your teams: Be vulnerable with them, admit you don’t have all the answers, but you do have their backs. Give people permission to have a bad day, to make a mistake.”
—Carrie Fletcher, PMP, vice president, people and experience, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
“It’s vital that leaders are always available to solve a problem and help team members navigate ways to cope with this unique situation.”
—Ruchika Godha, COO, Advaiya
“This year has been challenging, but it’s also given us a glimpse into what the future may look like for project management. What might have taken years— adapting to new tools, new ways of collaborating, new procedures—has been condensed into six months. It’s changed the project management role and what it means to lead a team.”
—Sean Howell, project manager, Quest Technology Management
“COVID has made it even more clear that leaders don’t always have all the answers. How could they? But leadership means listening to people, analyzing the situation and developing options, and sometimes making a collective decision on how to move the team toward a solution.”
—Polad Rustamov, CTO, TANAP Natural Gas Transmission Co.