COVID-era leadership: Being more human © Reuters. Heidrick & Struggles President & CEO Krishnan Rajagopalan poses in undated photo

By Chris Taylor

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Leading when you know where the world is headed is one thing, but it is something else when the future is uncertain.

Corporate executives are facing this challenge in the COVID-19 era, having to chart a path forward in foggy conditions without a map.

As a top headhunter who finds, develops and places those leaders, Krishnan Rajagopalan has seen first-hand how management has changed at this moment in history.

The president and chief executive of Heidrick & Struggles (NASDAQ:HSII) sat down with Reuters to discuss how leaders can keep their teams focused, productive and moving forward.

Q: How has leadership changed in the past year?

A: Leaders needed to be agile. That's a key way we assess people: Agility means having foresight, adaptability, resilience. That was so important last year, when we all experienced setback after setback.

But lots of other attributes became critical, too. Those who were able to embrace building a diverse and inclusive organization became very successful. Communication skills became very important, because you had to communicate more than you ever had to before. And on the personal side, you had to be able to show some humanity and empathy.

Q: Has this crisis changed what companies are looking for in leaders?

A: What people began to talk to us about was the human side of leadership. The ability to focus on not just on profits, but people.

There was more emphasis on human leaders, who could communicate, and be fair and authentic, and who really believe in diversity and inclusion. The bars on those issues were set much higher.

Q: Are there any particular CEOs who serve as good role models, for what leaders can be?

A: I really respect (Chief Executive) Satya Nadella at Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT). He focuses on the big picture, he can motivate people, and he thinks about the purpose of the company quite a bit. He thinks about their place in the community and on the planet.

Even when they moved to fully remote work, he continued to focus on company purpose and how to drive that. I like that consistency.

Q: You have mentioned the importance of diversity and inclusion, so how do you approach that as a search firm?

A: In 2018, we came out and said that at the board level, we would present a fully diverse slate on candidates on all our board searches.

We have been measuring the diversity of placements across our whole system. Last year in the Americas nearly 60% of our placements at the board level were diverse, and over 40% of our placements overall. We think about this issue on every search.

Q: How do you coach people through Imposter Syndrome, or not feeling qualified enough to be leaders?

A: Through our consulting business, we've certainly seen an uptick from leaders raising concerns about Imposter Syndrome as pandemic uncertainty continues.

We remind our clients that all of us are operating in a "new norm" - no one has been through this current situation of leading through a pandemic. The really good leaders aren't afraid to acknowledge to their teams that they don't know everything, and they are transparent and authentic about that. 

Q: Emotionally this era has been hard on employees and leaders alike. What advice do you have for people about pushing through?

A: Be mindful of your mental well-being. What applies to employees, applies to leaders as well. It's OK to be vulnerable, and to show that with your team.

I tell people not to bottle it all up. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

Q: Do you see this pace of change continuing in 2021?

A: It's only going to increase. When you think about it, we went from largely office-based environments to virtual worlds so incredibly fast. That pace is going to continue, and we're not going to return to previous ways of working. The world is changing, and leaders are changing as well.

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