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Optimal Leadership Development in Challenging Times

By Brian Steinberg, Director, Leadership Development, Kemper

Brian Steinberg, Director, Leadership Development, Kemper

March 6th, I left my office knowing it might be a while before I went back. Eight months later, we are still mired in the middle of a global pandemic, not to mention the socio-political uncertainty we face. Many of us have no idea if or when we might work in an office again. I reflect on the changes I have made in my work-life to be successful. I’m sure these will sound familiar to you. Suddenly all my meetings, coaching sessions, and assessment debrief were by video conference. It was necessary to migrate my MBA courses from in-person to a virtual-live format. I was experiencing the same pain-points as the leaders I typically support.

Employees were struggling with the challenges of forced remote work and family disruption. Leaders needed extra support to help their employees remain engaged, successful, and productive. Once the initial emergency of getting people working from home passed, I had conversations and made observations about what support leaders needed. Post-Covid needs were remarkably similar to pre-Covid needs. Three themes emerged. Number three on the list was understanding the business and using that understanding to prioritize the work. Number two on the list was being a strong coach who gives meaningful and actionable feedback. Communicating with employees with a strong sense of empathy and emotional intelligence turned out to be number one.

"Leaders need the grace to create an environment where these distractions are accepted and employees feel supported. Building the emotional intelligence required to do this takes practice and is best started by building self-awareness"

Employees are stressed by the dog barking in the background, the four-year-old demanding attention or the clothes piled on a chair visible on the Zoom call. Leaders need the grace to create an environment where these distractions are accepted and employees feel supported. Building the emotional intelligence required to do this takes practice and is best started by building self-awareness. Various tools and assessments can help with this, but one-on-one conversations and small-group discussions are critical. These interactions help leaders internalize information and enact new behaviors with their employees, especially virtually.

Next, leaders need help to improve employee skills and drive performance. The key to this is the ability to give actionable feedback and hold strong coaching conversations. This is harder virtually than face-to-face. Helping them understand how to build trusting relationships while learning simple step-by-step processes to give feedback and coach is paramount.

Finally, we focus on prioritization. Leaders need stronger business acumen, an understanding of the drivers and metrics of their department’s function, and the ability to consider the implications of their decisions. Development in these areas will allow them to assist employees in evaluating which tasks are most important. During times of chaos, when employees are struggling to balance work and home lives, getting them to focus on high-value activities is a necessity.

Leaders are being asked to simplify and prioritize the work their employees are doing. You need to simplify the development you provide for those leaders. Focus on enhancing one of these skills at a time. Consider options like micro-learnings, short videos, podcasts, and audio books to build understanding. Leverage virtual classrooms for breakout rooms, discussion, networking, and peer support. With the number of distractions occurring, leaders need us to break their development into smaller, bite-sized, easily consumed segments that are easy to implement on the job.

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