Being an effective leader can be difficult in the best of times, let alone during a global pandemic. Now that it has been over a year since many businesses were abruptly forced to migrate to a primarily remote workspace by the need to contain the spread of the coronavirus, managers are taking note of what works and what does not.
"You need to adapt your style to the needs of your team members — and never has that been more true than now," said Michael Maksymiw, CPA, CGMA, a tax partner who manages a remote team of 15 people for New York-based accounting firm Marcum.
In particular, Maksymiw noted that expressing empathy has risen to the top of important leadership skills, as many team members continue to struggle to navigate the various personal challenges brought on by the prolonged nature of the pandemic, whether that means helping children learn remotely, caring for sick relatives, or grieving for someone they may have lost.
"Knowing how to express empathy — or, really, having a high emotional IQ — isn't something that accountants are necessarily known for," he said. "But right now, it's become really critical to effective management, and sometimes what my team needs the most."
But balancing empathetic leadership with critical, non-negotiable business goals can be tricky. Here are some tips on what works:
Practice active listening
While being a good listener has always been an important management skill, under pandemic conditions it has become truly essential.
"For me, active listening is about understanding why someone's situation exists, why and how they are feeling the way they do, and then coaching them to help them come up with a plan that gets them where they want to be," said Lindsay Stevenson, CPA, CGMA, vice president of finance at South Dakota-based 1st Financial Bank USA. "It's a management approach kind of like a coach or facilitator."
According to Stevenson, this not only makes team members feel better, but it also gives managers critical information that they need to ensure that essential business goals are met.
"You truly need to understand team members' situations to set realistic goals," she said. For example, if a team member shares that they can only commit to five hours of uninterrupted work per day, and that the remaining three will be chaotic, "that's valuable information", she said. "And my response would be, 'OK, how do we measure the outputs for those five hours? What do we absolutely need to accomplish — and how can I help you to prioritize that?'"
Keep relationships strong with weekly one-to-one and team video check-ins
Due to social-distancing measures, communication via email and online collaboration platforms has become the default for most teams, largely replacing the social aspect of in-office work. While this has some benefits — such as allowing team members flexible schedules — it can also be isolating.
To nurture individual relationships with direct reports and camaraderie between team members, Andrew Codd, CGMA, the director of finance for global support services at Dell, based in Cork County, Ireland, recommends scheduling weekly one-to-one video calls with individual team members, as well as regular team calls.
"I set up one-hour meetings with each of my team members every week, and team calls once every two weeks," he said. "This helps with accountability, but it's also so that people don't feel isolated and so they feel like they are a part of something bigger."
Be clear about deadlines but flexible about how people meet them
Empathetic leadership does not mean sacrificing business goals. However, it does require that managers are deliberate and take a strategic approach to which goals to prioritize.
"As a manager, you need to be very clear on what absolutely needs to get accomplished, versus what would be a win if it does but isn't essential, and communicate that clearly to your team," Stevenson said. "In an ideal world, we'd want 100% of our team 100% of the time, but right now that's just not realistic."
To make sure that essential goals get met and that team members also feel supported, Stevenson recommends combining empathetic, active listening with clear communication around essential goals, and then coaching team members on creating their own strategies on how to reach them.
"It's really about building a feedback loop," she said. "If you started that initial conversation with actively listening and coaching, and then team members tried something that didn't work, usually they themselves will be the first to admit it — and also to suggest what strategies might work better."
Create integrated accountability systems
In addition to setting realistic goals, Codd recommends that managers consider building incremental accountability systems into their teams' regular workflow. For example, he has his team fill out a regular value log — similar to a mini performance self-assessment — in which they reflect on their work over the past two weeks and record how they have added value to the business. "These are really useful for keeping employees aware of the incremental steps they are taking towards short- and long-term goals," Codd said.
He also blocks out time for weekly one-to-one meetings with each of his team members, during which the value logs are often a point of discussion, providing an incentive to keep logs up to date.
In addition, Codd's team sends out a regular newsletter to business partners and internal departments, detailing what they have been up to. "Knowing that they have to contribute to the newsletters is an effective way of holding my team accountable, since it draws really heavily on the value logs," he said. An added bonus is that the newsletters have also been enormously popular with business partners and other departments. "We are essentially sharing what is working for us, and our team — so I think it's really useful," he said. "People really like them."
Acknowledge that things are still hard for your staff
The fact that it has now been over a year since working from home became the "new normal" does not necessarily mean that managing pandemic challenges has become easier for people. For many, the opposite is true.
"It's a really tough time for everyone," Maksymiw said. "I usually start calls with 'I'm assuming that you're not OK because no one is right now, so in the realm of not being OK, how are you?'"
While it may seem simple, Maksymiw said that merely acknowledging that people are struggling is very important.
"A big part of our job as managers and leaders is making sure that our team can be successful," he said. "Right now, that requires really listening to team members, and sometimes that means giving them the opportunity to vent."
Factor in team members' individual circumstances when setting goals
Given that everyone has different challenges at home, it is important for managers to be sensitive and accommodating to team members' individual challenges when setting team goals. For example, Maksymiw asks his direct reports to block out times that they are unavailable for personal reasons — even if it is during business hours.
"It's really important to make management individualized because everyone is dealing with different issues," he said. "What works for one of my direct reports might not work for another — and that means adjusting my style to people's individual circumstances and schedules."
Stevenson agrees, adding that she also takes into account team members' individual circumstances when meting out work.
"A lot of parents are in the position of having to manage their children's education, while still trying to hold down full-time jobs," she said. "It's probably not realistic to ask them to be on back-to-back Zoom calls all day, but that doesn't mean they aren't able to contribute in other essential ways."
— Malia Politzer is a freelance writer based in Spain. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, a JofA magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.