The DNA of Work

Leaders - fit for purpose?

July 06, 2021 Season 1 Episode 4
The DNA of Work
Leaders - fit for purpose?
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

The role of leaders has undergone a revolution since the start of the Covid 19 pandemic. Leaders and managers have adapted to managing virtually, some have learned new skills, others are waiting for a time when they can go back to the way things were. But their teams have had a taste of a different way of working and as so many are registering a willingness to leave their organisations if they can’t work how they want to, leaders really have to step up.

We explore the challenges, the advancements that many have made and the skills that will help leaders to bring their whole selves to work and be “ruthlessly authentic” as one of our guests so eloquently put it. That authenticity breeds trust – one of the aspects of virtual team working that can be damaged when we don’t see each other very often. 

Also, AWA’s Sofia Fonseca de Nino shares what she’s seeing in the Gulf Coast region of the US as energy companies in Houston continue to transform their approach to energy generation but also in terms of the way they work. She also stresses the importance of having connected, clear goals (organisational, team and personal) particularly when working away from offices, as we aren’t surrounded by those visual cues.


AWA Host: Karen Plum

Featured guests: 

  • Philippa Hale, Senior Associate in Change Management AWA (UK)
  • Ainsley Wallace, President & CEO, University of Southern Maine Foundation (USA)
  • David Smoragiewicz, MD, New England Market Leader, Willis Towers Watson (USA)
  • Sofia Fonseca de Nino, Senior Associate, AWA (USA)


AWA Guest details:  



AWA contact: Andrew Mawson  

Advanced Workplace Associates:     


AWI contact: David Smalley 

Advanced Workplace Institute:   

Music: courtesy of  


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00:00:01 Karen Plum

In this episode, we're looking at the role of leaders in the virtual world of work. How have they adapted to managing people virtually, and is there a danger that they'll revert to old ways of managing, calling everyone back to the office as soon as they can?

We consider some practical skills to help leaders build on the experience of the last 15 months because teams are looking for more than management by attendance. Here we go.

INTRO: Welcome to the Changing the World of Work Podcast, where we provide insightful, practical content to untangle and demystify workplace change. 

I'm Karen Plum, director at Advanced Workplace Associates, where we combine science with nearly 30 years’ experience helping organizations change the way they work, for the better.

00:00:55 Karen Plum

Welcome to this episode of the podcast where my guest is one of AWA’s Senior Associates in Change Management, Philippa Hale. Hi Philippa.

00:01:04 Philippa Hale

Hi Karen, thanks for having me.

00:01:06 Karen Plum

Today we're talking about leadership and what it takes to be a great leader when you're working away from your team. It's something that I think held many leaders back from allowing people to work away from the office in the past, but since the pandemic started, things really seem to have changed. What have you seen?

00:01:25 Philippa Hale

I've seen some quite obvious changes and also some more subtle changes as well. 

The obvious change, I think, is that managers who previously felt that the only way to manage a team is to have them physically around them, have now had it demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that teams can deliver projects, run events, collaborate with other teams, wherever they are. And those managers themselves have had the personal experience of working from home, which they may not have done before, so they've lived and breathed it. That doesn't mean everyone is comfortable with it, and it doesn't mean that some people aren't in the mindset of, well, we will go back to normal whatever normal might have been in the past. But it's been a huge eye opener for everyone.

At the more subtle level, I think actually where the success of the future hybrid working - as it is often being called now - I think it's in the subtle behavior changes, and things like being aware of our cognitive biases. The people that we see and connect with most frequently tend to be the ones that we trust more, that we share more information with, so that will naturally evolve towards the people who communicate more naturally more proactively. 

And in a team, especially a large team, there will always be people who the technology and also the team behavior slot into a role of listening more, rather than contributing more, and so the successful hybrid team leaders are the ones who are really open to picking up on their blind spots, really encouraging their teams to give them some feedback and very explicitly, but not in an aggressive or kind of demanding way, gently but firmly going round the table. Noticing the body language, that kind of thing is sometimes it's just a question of numbers. 

I have a hybrid team and it's really important, if you've got 7 people, just to tick and make sure everybody has had the chance to speak because you forget.

00:03:40 Karen Plum

So a lot of things to pay attention to, but it sounds like at least some of the people were engaging with are actually making that leap.

We ran a webinar recently and we had two external guests talking about what they had learned as leaders during the pandemic and they were particularly focusing on figuring out things together and not feeling that they had to have all of the answers. Let's have a listen to what they said.

00:04:06 David Smoragiewicz

I was speaking with the Chief Information officer of a Fortune 100 company, who said if you had given me six months a year ago to turn everything virtual, we never would have met that mark. The fact that we had to do it in 24 to 48 hours allowed us to be innovative and creative. 

It's almost like we need to have that mindset as we return to the new normal. It was like almost ripping the band aid off the wound and allowing ourselves to think about innovation and creativity as we create this new world of work, not go back.

00:04:36 Ainsley Wallace

One of the metaphors I like so much is the metaphor of flight attendants. Like if a plane starts experiencing turbulence, everybody looks for the flight attendants to see - is this ship going down? And as long as the flight attendants are still just passing out the peanuts, then everybody knows, like OK, we're going through a rocky patch, but things are going to be OK. I feel like that's the role of leadership - that it's not to deny reality that this is a rocky patch that we're going through.

00:05:03 Karen Plum

We heard from Ainsley Wallace, President and CEO, the University of Southern Maine Foundation, and David Smoragiewicz, who's the MD New England Market Leader from Willis Towers Watson. So are these the sorts of experiences you're seeing elsewhere Philippa?

00:05:21 Philippa Hale

I think what we've seen is a lot of managers who perhaps were very traditional in their need for command and control; their need for structure and process; and have been catapulted into a world of uncertainty and actually found that they coped fine.

00:05:36 Karen Plum

Yeah, they learned some new skills themselves.

00:05:39 Philippa Hale

They learned new skills themselves. They learned to handle ambiguity and uncertainty. I think in ways which were really, really empowering for people. I think they opened up a little bit of themselves - there's a little window into people’s lives.

00:05:55 Karen Plum

Everybody is a bit more willing to be a bit more human, aren't they? Ainsley talked about being “ruthlessly authentic” and I was really struck by that. I mean, it seems that the leaders that have really adapted have really tried to show more of themselves and to be more authentic people, as humans not just as sort of managers or micro managers.

00:06:20 Philippa Hale

Yeah, that's right, and there's almost a paradox there - in deliberately being authentic! But actually, yes, being ruthlessly authentic is a good phrase. Phrases that I'm hearing people talk about is - I feel like I can bring my whole self to work - I don't feel I have to put on a mask or a facade. I feel like as a leader. I actually have more impact on my team, in connection with my team because I've showed up as more of a whole person myself.

00:06:51 Karen Plum

David talked a lot about connecting with people.

00:06:54 David Smoragiewicz

I have this concept that there's this vicious cycle that could happen in this virtual world where if you're not intentional about expanding your networks and your teams and your connections, that you just begin to shrink and you feel more alone. So you know one of my goals as a leader is to really instill this idea of expanding in a virtuous way, your network, your connections, your teams, and how they interact across our entire organization.

You know, I'm a big fan of Simon Sinek, you know another one of his great lines I think is “great Leaders eat last”, so making sure you're putting your people first and foremost and making sure their needs are being met before you focus on your own.

00:07:34 Karen Plum

It seems like leaders are really starting to shift their thinking to their people, doesn't it? And perhaps obviously they're not ignoring the tasks that people are having to work on, but people really seem to be starting to come first.

00:07:47 Philippa Hale

Yes, and I think what a lot of managers have realized is that in order to get the job done better, faster and produce better results, starting with the people is the right place to start.

David talked about expanding your network and connecting with people and that way you get access to more knowledge, more experience, more person power - you build trust across teams for example, so you get less of the “us and them”, so you get more knowledge sharing. If you're building a network. If you're deliberately connecting with people in other parts of the organization.

You know, for example, within AWA I'm actually one of the relative newcomers to the team, and I've really deliberately made the effort to reach out to people who I know are doing similar work to mine and asking for some of their time.

And they've responded brilliantly and I've encouraged clients we're working with to do the same. And people are always really pleased to be asked even when they're crazy busy, which everyone seems to be at the moment with the back to back Zooms and so on. But nevertheless, if you can make more of an effort to do more networking and to connect with people and make people feel as if they're a part of your solution if you like.

00:09:07 Karen Plum

Absolutely. I think trust is a really important aspect and you know, part of building the trust is as you were saying, reaching out to people, connecting, sharing and letting them know a bit more about you as a person and our speakers talked about empathy as well as authenticity and Ainsley talked about having a different mindset. Let's have a listen to what she said.

00:09:31 Ainsley Wallace

Maybe the perfect virtual leader has given up the idea of perfection, because I think that there is sort of shift in the virtual world from a command and control mindset to a more democratized leadership mindset. And when I was thinking about the six factors that Lisa was talking about and the ones that need the most attention in a virtual world - no one leader is able to provide all of those things that it's about trusting your people to establish the systems to start to do that.

00:09:59 Karen Plum

So the factors that need extra attention (of the six factors) are the cohesiveness of the team, how much we trust each other, and how well we share information with each other. Which of these have you seen come under the most strain during this last year, Philippa.

00:10:14 Philippa Hale

Well, I mean definitely all three. Interestingly, I think team cohesion - I've seen a lot of teams prioritize this and really reach out to each other and try and have the virtual socials. And in a sense that's almost been something that they've gone to first and deliberately tried to recreate and sustain right? 

I think what struck me most about what Ainsley said was this idea of giving up the idea of perfection, and I wonder if that isn't linked to trust? I think that the hardest thing to do has been to trust that things will get done and that things are being done when you can't physically see people working.

And so that I think the one that needs the most work for many of the organizations that I've seen is the shift to focusing on the outcomes and the results that people produce, rather than how they're going about the task, and avoiding any kind of micro management or meddling - is what it feels like to people. But also not going to the other end of that spectrum and bordering on neglect because people need some feedback. 

They need positive feedback, different personality types respond differently to different types of feedback and there are certainly personality types out there where if you get no feedback, you just keep working harder and harder and harder, and that's where you head for burnout.

Then on the other end of the spectrum, where you get too much feedback, that can cause irritation, resentment, and withdrawal of willingness to engage.

00:11:54 Karen Plum

Yep, so if we're moving away from the notion of a perfect virtual leader, could you share, just to finish us off, perhaps the top three qualities that you think virtual leaders are going to need to focus on?

00:12:07 Philippa Hale

Yes, the one that leapt into my mind was empathy. Definitely being able to listen and tune in to what's going on in people's world. So empathy. 
 Clarity. That's something I think I struggle with. Sometimes as a leader, you've less air time with people, so organizing your thoughts, either in writing or verbally and when you're sharing information which is one of the top three of the six factors, being much more concise, and keeping it simple. Which is hard, takes longer to say something simply than it does to waffle on.

 00:12:49 Karen Plum

And more effort, probably.

00:12:52 Philippa Hale

That's right, so that's two. So empathy, clarity, sharing information, and the other one, I think, self-disclosure.

Doesn't mean you know wearing your heart on your sleeve or telling everybody your life story, 'cause that would be a bit painful too, but, and in each culture across the globe, across companies, across organizations, people have different needs and different tolerances for you know what's appropriate to share and what isn't. But reading people and finding the famous sweet spot is you know what each person is comfortable sharing, making sure you've got the one to one time as well as the group time so that you can be there to listen and to share.

00:13:29 Karen Plum

Yeah, and I guess with all of those three comes the authenticity that we spoke about earlier on. And I remember you speaking on the webinar about people having a positive intent, and I guess that's something that you know is going to be very obvious. If the words coming out of your mouth are disconnected from what you're actually doing then people will call you out. Well, they won't necessarily call you out, but they will see the disconnect between those two!

00:13:58 Philippa Hale

Yes, and what I've seen quite a lot of, and I've really done my very best to avoid is that very slight irritation, or I've heard the phrase low level coercion, which sounds a bit dramatic, but it's sort of because you don't want - because we're remote - you don't want to upset people, but nevertheless you're frustrated. So what can happen, and I don't know whether this is a very British thing, but it can slide into ever so slight passive aggressive narkiness!

And I think being aware, really listening hard to yourself and making sure that you're not drifting into that, because of course, you will be role modeling it for others if you do. And coming back to that authenticity, am I being honest here? Am I handling this in a in an adult / adult way or am I trying to be authentic, but actually maybe not quite getting there.

00:14:52 Karen Plum

That's fascinating, and I think it's good for all of us to think about how we're coming across and whether we're demonstrating those qualities as managers and leaders. Thanks, Philippa, thanks for sharing your thoughts, it's been great talking with you today.

00:15:07 Philippa Hale

Thanks Karen, great pleasure.

00:15:10 Karen Plum

Now we have a quick break and then we'll be taking a look at what's going on in Houston as part of our Focus series. See you soon.

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I'm David Smalley. I'd be delighted to invite you to an AWI event as my guest. If you're interested, there are details in our show notes. I look forward to hearing from you.

00:16:07 Karen Plum

Welcome back. Now we're going to talk about what's happening in the Gulf Coast area of the US, and I'm delighted to welcome our Senior Associate, Sofia Fonseca, who's based in Houston. Hi Sofia!

00:16:19 Sofia Fonseca de Nino

Hello Karen, what a pleasure to speak with you today.

00:16:23 Karen Plum

You're very welcome. Can you share with us what the main trends are that you're seeing in your part of America?

00:16:30 Sofia Fonseca de Nino

Well, I live in the southern part of the USA in the Gulf Coast region, and oil and gas industries have been the bread and butter of our business environment. I live in the energy capital of the world in Houston and it is a very bold and entrepreneurial community that was already undergoing transformation before the pandemic.

But the effects of travel restrictions have reduced the need for petroleum and they have accelerated a transformation that was already going on. Many of the majors, Exxon, Chevron were shifting to include renewable energy in their platforms for delivering power to the world, so sustainability is definitely a trend. 

We see it with British Petroleum, with Shell, for example. They're shifting to policies of net zero, reducing carbon footprints, being very mindful about their policies, let's say. As an example, shedding assets in the North Sea or investing in wind farms before the pandemic. But they have moved faster and more boldly in that direction in the last year.

Another trend in the industry is digitization. Companies were already digitizing their processes for finding oil, for tracking oil, for downstream, for distributing it, for selling it. This process was transforming the makeup of teams themselves, embedding IT teams into all the processes, breaking down walls between internal teams.

So another trend is organizational leanness. Many of them are still undergoing that process. So with relationship to our focus in AWA, oil and gas companies have been changing their workplaces for the last 10 years from very traditional environments to activity-based settings. From siloed organizations based in regions of the world that they supported, for example, to more network or matrix organizations that are based on cross-functional arrangements to accelerate delivery and decision making. So all these trends were happening, the pandemic has accelerated it.

00:18:35 Karen Plum

Are companies just waiting to get everybody back to old ways of working, or are some making changes?

00:18:42 Sofia Fonseca de Nino

Many of the companies are going to start going back in the summer. Some of them are starting after the 4th of July, others are talking about after Labor Day. I know one company that returned last week and so they are testing to see how it works, knowing that they have learnt lessons working from home that will change the way work happens. 

For years we have spoken to oil and gas companies about creating flexible policies, including remote work. But the most companies accepted was in nine.80 arrangement that gave people one Friday twice a month. But other than that, remote work was not welcome for sales teams and for some of the teams that were out on the field there was definitely remote work, but not really as something that defined the way work was done.

Exxon Mobil, for example, created a campus in the last decade for 10,000 people expecting everybody at work, creating something like a Google campus, something that had everything there for them. And hybrid is the new word that everybody is talking about. We have been working in a distributed manner for years, but people working from home is a new reality and the teams will adapt and we have to see what happens as they return to work. 

We're running some space utilization studies in some of these companies to see what our new habits what are new behaviors, what new cognitive patterns people have developed working from home, and how they can improve the way work happens in the office.

00:20:19 Karen Plum

It's really interesting that a lot of these companies were already on this journey, but perhaps it's accelerated for them. But of course you know in other parts of the world there are many companies for whom this was a complete turnabout change, and I'm wondering if you're seeing different responses from organizations, perhaps that aren't in the energy sector. Or indeed, if you're seeing differences between US based and multinationals that have a presence in your area.

00:20:46 Sofia Fonseca de Nino

There are some similar trends because everybody is discussing how to return to the office after seeing that teams that never thought could or were not allowed to work remotely, did so effectively.

This has been true for European and American companies from the Gulf Coast region. We also support a lot of work in Central and South America, for example, and many other companies in some of these countries never stopped working in the office. In some cases the infrastructure wasn't prepared for remote work and employees might not have had laptops or Wi-Fi requirements were not aligned and so many had lots of essential workers and they didn't work remotely as much as we did in Europe and in the United States. 

The acceleration of the changes to include some form of what everybody is calling hybrid, I think has been similar in Europe and in the U.S. Some governments have been more strict, whether local or state or federal government in enforcing no movement in certain cities and so companies have had to allow employees to work virtually and have jumped through hoops they would have never done in the past. 

We know that in some cases people had plans to do it in a year and then all of a sudden we had to do it in just a few hours. 24 hours for many people and it worked even for call centers. We've had people that for years have said call centers could never work from the house, but we know now that call centers have been running from homes. Also in Houston we also have a huge medical industry, those were essential workers in all the medical side but of course the administrative side also had to work from home.

And then we also have a scientific community related to NASA and a lot of engineering and many of the companies in the engineering world were also considered essential. So many of them also were working from the office, but with remote options, and so they've had to learn to work in distributed ways that in ways that we didn't have before.

00:22:53 Karen Plum

Earlier in the podcast we were talking about virtual leaders and I guess for those in the energy sector that have been on this journey for quite some years, I guess the managerial skills for managing people that you're not with all the time have probably been developing. What are you seeing?

00:23:10 Sofia Fonseca de Nino

I find that setting goals together has been much more important because when we are together in the office we can see the goals around us. People have lists and post-its, and you see whiteboards and as you walk through the office you see people and what they're trying to achieve.

There's sort of something that is imbued in the environment, but when you are working apart setting these goals and checking on the achievement regularly and in some cases daily for others, weekly for others, monthly or quarterly, is very important.

To do so for professional and personal goals also makes a difference, because when we create team goals professionally, we know we're advancing. We're finding cohesion in the teams, we know what the teammates are doing, and we're building momentum. But to also help setting personal goals helps the team to gel around personalities, around interests and to keep each other accountable.

So goal setting is a very successful way of creating clarity and enthusiasm and a path for measuring results. So one of the things that I've been much more mindful about is having goal setting that is checked regularly.

00:24:30 Karen Plum

Absolutely, and helping everybody to know where their contribution fits into the bigger picture. So thanks for sharing your insights with us Sophia. It's been great talking with you.

00:24:43 Sofia Fonseca de Nino

Thank you so much, Karen.

00:24:46 Karen Plum

That's all for this episode. If you enjoyed it, please share it with a friend or colleague. See you next time.

CLOSE: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Changing the World of Work Podcast. Please follow or like the show so you don't miss any of our content. You can find more information on this episode in our show notes, including a link to the AWA website, if you'd like to know more about us. Hope to see you next time goodbye.

Gulf Coast, USA