“One of the things we have learned through this pandemic is the value of human connection,” said Rahul Varma, Global Head of HR - Chief Talent Officer at Accenture Technology, as he kickstarted his keynote address at People Matters L&D Conference 2021.
Talking about ‘Leadership capacities in a post-pandemic world’, Rahul highlighted the three key pandemic driven shifts in leadership capacity and expectations, the silent impact of the last 19 months on mental health, and the need to tap beyond intellectual intelligence for virus-free answers in the post-pandemic world.
Read on for highlights from the session.
The extraordinary ‘19 months’
“We've just experienced these extraordinary 19 months. Manic anxiety and helplessness ripped all of us, as we were faced with a disease that was spreading at a speed that was unprecedented,” said Varma as he recounted the circumstances that surfaced in the last 19 months.
“19 months onwards, from great adversity comes great invention.” Reflecting on the journey that followed, Varma highlighted the tremendous reinvention all around the world. “The opportunity for digital transformation was seized by many companies in many industries, and over a matter of weeks there was an online revolution and literally everything started to move online. We saw a massive subsequent move to the cloud, and essentially the last 12 months have been a story of great digital transformation.”
Looking back at how the 19 months have unfolded, Varma highlighted three profound shifts that leaders need to take note of:
- Inequalities are widening. “Income inequalities around the world are widening, with very few exceptions. The gap between those that have and those that haven't are increasing.”
Varma shared that in Mar 2020, New York had 614 billionaires with a collective wealth of $3 Tn. As of Oct 2021, New York has 745 billionaires with a collective wealth of $5 Tn, which is 70% greater than what it was 19 months ago. At the same time, 89 million Americans have been out of work and the vast majority of workers have seen a decline in their savings. “That’s the gap that we're seeing and it's not just in the US. In most countries around the world, we are seeing that gap widen.”
In addition to the widening income inequalities, Varma shed light on the education gap which is also widening between the children that had some access to education whether online or in person and those that were just cut off to the digital divide. “This gap is going to widen more and more, and it's perhaps going to take a couple generations to get phased.”
- The sheer scale of devastation. “The loss of human life, the pace at which people have contracted the disease, and the long term implications of that will take many years to understand and overcome.”
- The silent impact of the pandemic on mental health. The MHQ, or mental health quotient witnessed a drastic drop between 2019 and 2020. And 2021 has experienced an even bigger decline with some very worrying trends. “With increased unemployment around the world there are clear differences in the mental health of those that are employed and those that are not, with some clear trends between those that are suffering, and their ability to be productive members of the society, along with extreme implications on themselves, including suicidal thoughts and so on.”
Bringing to light the generational difference in the impact on mental health, Varma said, “The younger the generation is, the impact is more pronounced, with young adults being profoundly impacted in their mental health.”
What do these shifts mean for leadership
“When I look back at the last 19 months, to me it feels like a profound time of reinvention and rejuvenation,” said Varma. He discussed three takeaways from the pandemic to reimagine what leadership means in the present times:
- Redefine success at an organizational level at an individual level. “For the longest time, we have looked at success purely in financial terms, purely in quarterly stock market implications, but that is no longer sufficient. We need to have a broader definition of success that encompasses financial, environmental, societal and human implications, so that the world that we collectively live in, and the world of work that we are building together is not just about profit, but it is about a greener planet. It is about a more principled, and more just society, and is one where humans get to thrive.”
- The scope, the complexity and the breadth of what is called upon for leaders has widened very significantly, and in some cases, exponentially. “19 months ago, our leaders had to take 10s of 1000s, in some cases, millions of workers, away from the workplace, and enable to work from home, literally in a matter of days, and they had to do so safely. They had to reinvent entire business models in ways that no textbook had taught them. Many months later, as the second wave hit and caused unimaginable devastation in countries like India, and Southeast Asia and Latin America, the whole idea of taking care of people took an entirely different definition.”
"Business leaders have had to step into a space once occupied by other institutions like the government, the healthcare sector, simply because the crisis was way too big for any of those institutions to solve for."
“As businesses, we were bringing people into hospitals, getting them oxygen concentrators, getting them oxymeters and providing every single form of health care that was possible in very dire situations, and this was not in the job description of any single person, any single leadership/ management textbook, and yet, leaders were called upon to do that,” added Varma.
- Seeking connection, recognition and value: “For the longest time we have treated human beings, as the brain that they are. We've treated human beings for the productivity that they can generate, but the reality is that we are more than our brains.” The body has an innate intelligence, which we need to tune into, advised Varma.
Tapping into the human desire to seek connection, recognition and feeling valued, Varma noted how the lack of the above is in fact fueling the ‘great resignation’ or ‘great attrition’. “We are seeing more and more people leaving their jobs and companies. And as organizations we are trying to do what we have always done, which is what can we do to fix compensation, what can we do to fix career path, what can we do to make our place more attractive so people don't leave. But if you peel under the onion, the reasons that people are leaving are different from all previous cycles of high attrition. Tthe difference is that people are leaving more and more because they have a lack of connection. They have a lack of purpose, a lack of feeling valued, a lack of feeling appreciated by people around them.”
“Leadership in the post pandemic world is going to be about greater agility, greater invention, greater reinvention, and greater reimagination."
"Leadership is going to be about being able to call upon more intelligences, more than the intellectual intelligence that we have relied upon. This is a time of great compassion where we recognize this whole human being that shows up every single day.”
Stressing upon the shift in what leadership means in the post-pandemic world, Varma said that moving forward, we are not going to draw up on leadership from the outside, but leadership from within.
“There is that deep inner core within each one of us that if we were to tune into more and more, there are answers that we can call upon that are actually virus-proof. And in all of this isolation, all of this anxiety and all of this separation, we have the opportunity to be able to bring upon the world the best of ourselves and by doing so we can honor the best in others.”
The keynote demonstrates the lens of compassion that is demanded of leaders today. What the workforce needs of leadership is not hand-holding through the uncertainties, but acceptance of the evolving work-life ecosystem that has fueled a shift in the leader-employee relationship. The element of compassion, combined with a renewed outlook towards success and growth, has cemented itself as an essential for successful leadership in the post-pandemic world.