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Transform to perform: The central role of leadership

Future of Work|Talent
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By Hamish Deery | October 26, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis is providing a defining moment for leaders. They need to steer their organisations and workforces through dramatic and uncertain times.

No matter where in the world, or in which sector, leaders are asking – and needing – employees to exist in new environments, think in new ways and behave differently. This is impacting how employees experience work and feel about their future; how leaders show up and, ultimately, determining how the business pivots and performs.

In a recent joint whitepaper with the World Economic Forum, we identified four key principles for leading through the crisis:

  1. Adopting an agile and continuous learning mindset
  2. Understanding the perspectives of and engage all stakeholders
  3. Focusing on employee and company wellbeing
  4. Balancing medium-term needs and longer-term business objectives

So how exactly do leaders need to pivot, and how do they manage the business and employee experience (EX) issues?

Leadership capabilities for transformation and EX

Our client experience and global research suggests that some traditional leadership competencies need de-emphasising, while others need ’dialling up’.

It has become less important for leaders to be regulators and technicians who make use of established principles, focusing on practical skills and a factual understanding to develop solutions to issues. Instead they are increasing their focus on being:

A Change agent for people and the organisation

This starts with envisioning the future, accepting change more than most, coping well with uncertainty, readily accepting new challenges, being adept at getting things started, and making things happen.

A crisis handler

Reacting to issues as they arise and decisively dealing with crisis situations. Working well under pressure, making quick decisions, taking responsibility for big decisions, appearing calm and collected, and holding firm views on issues when required.

A wellbeing facilitator

This means an authentic focus on wellbeing. Responding to the individual’s needs, being considerate and trusting, empathising with the changes people are experiencing, listening attentively, and working to take a team-oriented view.

A customer champion

Core to success here is anticipating customer needs. It also includes ensuring a high level of quality and delivery, working at a fast pace and on multiple things, being well organised and making plans, and being reliable and meticulous about delivering to standards.

Understanding the now and adapting for tomorrow

Organisations that transform quickly are rethinking leadership expectations and their approach to development. They are asking some hard questions: Should we re-define the key leadership capabilities our organisation needs to ensure longer-term success? Do we revisit our overall leadership development strategy? How do we take leadership transformation down into the organisation?

Clear action can help answer these questions. Here are some examples:

  1. 01

    Assessing how we are doing

    Prioritising leadership attributes that matter most to lead now and into the future, addressing what is needed for ownership and commitment to the new leadership charter, and aligning on the importance of collective leadership to drive sustainable transformation and change.

  2. 02

    Assessing collective strengths and risk profiles

    Leveraging the collective strengths of the team(s), capturing any shifts in focus that are needed, considering the risk profile of leadership team(s), and bringing insights together to align on action.

  3. 03

    Agreeing how we deliver a high performing EX

    Being clear on the elements of the EX for which leaders are accountable, evaluating the current and future state across what is essential, what to emphasise and how to drive excellence.
    How will this crisis define your leadership? With the right focus and support, your leaders can successfully manage both business sustainability and EX.


Regional leader, Talent, Asia & Australasia,
Willis Towers Watson

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