Coaching and consulting firm, Leading Figures, explain how leaders can sharpen their skills for the new hybrid world of work
ICAS partners with Leading Figures to offer coaching for executives and aspiring leaders. Laurence Eastham and ICAS Deputy President Clive Bellingham CA meet the team to learn why leadership styles must evolve in a hybrid world
The pandemic may – touch wood – be largely behind us, but the reimagining of workplaces and management styles for our changed world is still in its early stages. The formalisation of hybrid working practices, with teams increasingly spread across locations and even time zones, requires a rethink of how professionals interact with one another and, consequently, how leaders inspire their teams to reach individual and shared goals.
“There is certainly a need for a more humane leadership,” says Thomas Chalmers, Partner at Glasgow-based Leading Figures. “The days of command-and-control leadership are long gone and any leaders hanging onto that style are probably suffering from staff running for the door. Leaders need to trust employees to work well – and allow them to think about how, where and when they do it. But, by the same token, employees need to be accountable for results and deliverables.”
“Unless leaders are approaching this with a completely different mindset, they’re going to be increasingly challenged,” adds ICAS Deputy President Clive Bellingham CA. “The nature of the relationship between employer and employee will continue to change dramatically. It’s a far more complex world to navigate as a leader – we’ve gone from two relatively simple worlds (online or in person) to a much more complex situation.”
Cultivating mutual trust, and relaxing tried-and-tested management styles, is easier said than done, though. Leaders will need to rethink management strategies at a time when the ground beneath their feet is in a state of constant flux. Being aware of the obstacles is the first step.
“There are three key challenges,” says Russell Borland, a Leading Figures Partner. “The first is the pressure to retain staff – people have taken the last few years to re-evaluate what they want in life. Leaders will also need to be visible to teams, staff and clients – technology isn’t quite the same as face to face. What we’ve noticed is people really miss the small, subtle things about being together. The third challenge is that we’re not quite sure what the new normal is yet – things are still settling down.”
There’s a particular urgency to adapt with speed and efficiency in the client-focused world of accountancy and professional services. With high-quality client service the utmost priority, firms must ensure any disruption from internal reorganisation and changing management styles is minimised at the surface level.
“There are so many different working patterns that organisations – lawyers, accountants, etc – are offering,” says Leading Figures Coach Janet Hayes. “We have got to create a level playing field for everyone, when people are in different places and different positions. There’s got to be a focus on listening and asking questions – the coaching approach to leadership.”
And Bellingham points out that it cuts both ways: “Don’t make assumptions about what your clients want or how they want to behave going forward. You have to ask them questions and understand their experience. I certainly had a couple of clients who were quite happy to continue having video calls rather than going back to in-person meetings.”
Leading Figures partners with ICAS to offer two specialist options for leaders looking to sharpen their skills for a hybrid world – the Aspiring Leaders and Executive coaching programmes. The two programmes combine group and one-to-one sessions, giving professionals the space to re-evaluate their approach to management and leadership positions.
“Many leaders don’t take time to think about their leadership style or approach,” says Chalmers. “Through these programmes, we will be exploring leadership and sharing a learnable, practical model that has stood the test of time.”
“The Aspiring Leaders programme is for those who see themselves as future leaders – it could be ideally suited to someone who is on partner track. And, crucially, they need to have the drive, ambition and mindset to get there – the growth mindset. Participants can expect to leave with an understanding of the skills that will take them from technical specialist to business leader. The programme consists of three group sessions, interleaved with three one-to-one sessions. The group sessions facilitate peer learning while the one-to-one sessions allow for a deeper dive into what might be getting in the way of individual success.
“The Executive coaching programme is for those who are operating at the top – or for those who have just been appointed to an executive role. This programme involves four group sessions with three one-to-ones. Many executives don’t have people to talk to. This is an opportunity for them to sit around a table, share challenges and aspirations and really hone their skills.”
As much as leadership and management is about forging good relationships with others, the programmes also place emphasis on building up the leader’s resilience as an individual. The pandemic shone a spotlight on the importance of personal wellbeing – and it will be especially important as leaders adjust to managing hybrid teams.
“Listening to leaders at these sessions, keeping up your resilience as a leader is a common challenge,” explains Borland. “The basics are looking after your health: eating well, sleeping well and exercise. People need to adjust their routines to optimise those three components. And leadership is a lonely position. It’s really helpful for leaders to be able to unpack and have other people to listen. That personal support network was especially challenging during the pandemic.”
For ongoing career support, coaching programmes can be supplemented and strengthened by forms of mentoring and sponsorship, ensuring that professionals have a dedicated space to share longer-term challenges. Earlier this year, ICAS launched a new mentoring platform, Career Connections, to put CAs of similar careers and backgrounds in touch with one another. It is seeking a diverse group of mentors to put themselves forward and assist fellow CAs.
“Mentoring and sponsorship are vital for progression,” says Hayes. “It speaks to the 70-20-10 rule of learning, according to which most of your learning is done on the job. People need to seize these opportunities to practise being a leader in a hybrid environment – to ask questions and learn from others. You learn so much just from watching and talking to others.”