HR expert Q&A 1: The best executive job description is no description

Times of change call for managers with different abilities. What about during and after Covid-19? This is an excerpt from a discussion of “The leader of the future” organized online by BMI Brussels with high-level HR consultants and executives, including moderator Jean-Marc Benker of Profiler Consulting in Luxembourg, Christina Aon of CERASP in Canada, Aad JCM van Vliet of Avvartes in Switzerland, and Marie-Pierre Saint Viteux of Volvo Construction Equipment in Belgium.

Jean-Marc: What skills are recruiters looking for in executive candidates today? Are there any requirements specifically linked to Covid-19?

Christina: Working from home, there’s of course much to be said for people who can work autonomously. You can’t be a micromanager and must trust your team, since everyone is working remotely. You do however need good planning skills to organise people’s weeks and then follow up. You also need a sort of a resilience, for yourself and to be able to help your team – there is a lot up and down now financially and emotionally. You have to be empathetic. That is really key.

Marie-Pierre: Leaders in these times need many different sets of skills. The top ones that come to my mind is flexibility, adaptability, agility. The new world is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, pushing companies to expect the unexpected. But how can we manage changes that may be unexpected? The only way to succeed is by being able to react very quickly as a leader, with the courage to change direction whenever that seems to be required. Because any delay can have huge consequences for people, for human health, and potentially for the viability of the business.

Another important skill set is the ability to use new technologies for effective communication with employees and customers. For employees, a key question is how to make sure they can continue to do their job, how to ensure access to the information they need. Another is how to support isolated employees. The relationship with customers is going to change as well, clearly, altering what is an effective marketing message and how best to reach out. Things are changing quickly, and the winners will be those who quickly take best advantage of the latest technologies.

A third priority, mentioned by Christina, is resilience, the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. Today more than ever that is vital for success. Resilient leaders are the ones who can take advantage of the opportunities during and after any crisis. They can also mitigate a crisis’s impact and even help a company come out of a crisis stronger. The right resilient approach can change the big picture of a business crisis from negative to positive, because it pushes you to move forward.

Jean-Marc: So how should the job description of a corporate leader change after this crisis? Are there new tasks to include?

Aad: Today the best job description is no job description. I remember when you needed a job description – in the old, slow days. But the world has moved on. Job descriptions are not helpful since change is incredibly fast and all Covid-19 has done is fast-forward the future. We’re now where we probably would’ve been in several years if there were no Covid, in terms of remote, virtual work.

What we should be thinking about is how we organize teams, how we structure work. In Switzerland, Novartis is a major employer and they have decided that all their employees can now decide where and when they’ll work. They just have to inform their boss. The company is experimenting and will review their future office needs. That means the campus they’ve been investing in over the last 20 years is going to change.

What does Covid-19 mean for leaders’ skills and mindsets? As I’ve heard from clients and seen in the literature, the people who are shining now and will shine post-Covid are not necessarily the same people who shone when we were all coming to the office. What is becoming really important is delivering in this remote world – doing what I promise. That is what is noticed, not just by managers, but also by peers, the team. It‘s an important change. The future of leadership is very much about the virtual world, which even after this crisis will remain a key part of how we organise our work.

Jean-Marc: Aren’t the skills we’re talking about already present in startups, helping them behave disruptively and seize market share and clients?

Christina: I work with a lot of startups. We notice when they’re able to react quickly and know those ones are going to be able to evolve. Startups depend a lot on venture capital and grants, and when the pandemic hit all of that froze up amid the uncertainty. The startups with the resilience to keep going, with the agility to refocus on research and communications, for example, and tamp down what they didn’t have the budget for at the moment, they are the o nes that are ready to pounce now when the grants and the VC funding are coming back. One thing for sure is that you need to be flexible and make sure the people around you can be flexible.

Read HR expert Q&A part 2: Learning to see the big picture and know all the options