Over the past year, norms entrenched in business operations were disrupted, business leaders were forced to make decisions on-the-go, without any toolkits, handbooks and best practices that they could turn to.
While many creative solutions have come to the fore in the process, organizations need to have a concerted effort to develop their workforces into becoming agile leaders responsible for progress. In an exclusive session with HR leader Deepti Varma, HR Director, APAC and Middle East, Amazon Corporate spoke about how Amazon helped leaders and employees hone their leadership skills over the past year.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted leaders and managers?
Experts and research studies suggest that other than people who have been laid off, middle managers have felt the maximum pressure over the past year. In most industries, they have had to take pay cuts, decide on which team members should be let go, and they worked hard to keep their teams productive and engaged while working from home.
Jacob Hirsh, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, says, “This is a period of great uncertainty. As managers, you aren’t sure what you’re supposed to do and how you’re supposed to do it.”
Managers and leaders have been asked to walk the extra mile without really being told how to do it or supporting them through the process. So, while they have been made responsible for the wellbeing of their teams, their own wellbeing has taken a backseat.
How to enable effective leadership: The Amazon approach
At Amazon, the company took a two-pronged approach to help managers and leaders deal with the changes in the Covid-era:
Given the increase in their role and scope, managers took a step back from their day-to-day operations and responsibilities that were well-established and documented. Teams were allowed to set their own goals, monitor their own performance, and undertake collective decision-making as well.
Although implemented in a part of the organization, this model helped alleviate stress levels and improve individual performance. It reduced the burden of decision-making from one individual, thus helping team members navigate challenges independently. Unsurprisingly, the culture and conversation in these teams also improved, as everyone felt more represented and responsible.
To clarify, this is not to suggest that the manager's role was done away with. The company focused on simply diverting their skills, time, and attention to creating the most fulfilling experiences for their team members. By not being held back by daily reports and mechanical tasks, managers felt more empowered to look after their teams, and, as a result, productivity across all roles went up significantly.
Building new-age leadership skills and competencies
Alongside reducing the pressure, the focus was on new-age skill building as well. Here are the top priorities:
Agility: The goal is to help leaders undertake quick decisions and navigate uncharted challenges with confidence. Agility today means going beyond reacting to challenges and foreseeing them to find solutions in advance.
Empathy: If there’s one thing leaders consistently fail at, it is at being empathetic, and it is all the more difficult to gauge the body language and tone of the conversation on video calls. So simply recognizing the effort, sending appreciatory emails, and understanding what people in the team are going through has never been more important. Build a culture for leaders to be empathic and to support their teams.
Ability to learn and change: ‘Learn and Be Curious’ is one of the defining mottos of Amazon, and we supported all our leaders in unlearning redundant knowledge, getting up to speed to new changes, and being open to making them permanent. The pandemic has demonstrated that the ability to learn and change is probably what distinguishes success from failure.
Willing to own mistakes and learn from them: Managers who admit their mistakes and learn from them are inarguably better at leading their teams. So, instead of reprimanding managers for their mistakes, the company celebrated them by issuing correction of error documents. The idea is to tell them to take risks, make mistakes, and learn from them.
Mechanisms to build leadership across levels
The process of building competent leadership across all levels of the organization must be based on the following principles:
The first thing Amazon employee see when they open their devices to start their work is a pop-up question about how they are feeling. The question changes every day with a goal of understanding how they are feeling about big and small things - a policy change, a recent event, a milestone.
These anonymized responses are viewed by the manager and it helps them understand what the team wants. As a matter of fact, many of our work-from-home policies were sourced from these pop-up quizzes. Thus, communication, both top-down and bottom-up, is vital for managers to be able to lead their teams.
While it is more difficult to collaborate virtually than in-person, the silver lining is that there is practically no limit with whom you can collaborate with today. There are no boundaries, and everyone in your team, no matter their location, can now work with you. This has opened a world of opportunities for individuals and groups to collaborate with new partners, and the results are evident.
So, collaboration and productivity tools are what you make of them. If leveraged correctly, they can help employees solve new challenges and take on new endeavors.
Finally, thinking outside the box and differently from others is an indispensable part of leadership. Being creative in approach and perspective is vital not just for leaders but also for employees as well.
These creative ideas must come from all levels in the organization and their implementation can help employees feel more connected, visible, and valued. Deploying an individual’s creativity for the benefit of a larger group and culminating it in a tangible result will create a very fulfilling work experience for them.
To wrap things up, organizations that envision nurturing their employees into successful leaders must go beyond mentoring. Leaders should not be expected to be an expert at everything, but be allowed to develop their own signature leadership style and learn on-the-job as well.
On the other hand, employees who dream of leading their teams and organizations should begin by learning to listen carefully. This trait is the bedrock of all other successful leadership skills. It might be useful to remember that one school of thought says that a leader's role is nothing but to unblock their team, help them work independently, and own a mistake whenever it is made.
(This article is based on Day Two of Skillsoft’s Leadercamp Guest Speaker, Deepti Varma, HR Director, Amazon (APAC and the Middle East) session, “Enable every employee to be a leader”)