Traditionally, we think of leaders as having all the answers. But in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous (VUCA) environment, characterised by global challenges including the climate crisis and economic instability, no one person can know every solution.
So how does this impact the role of leaders? Our recent event, Leadership in a Volatile and Uncertain World, set out to explore this question.
We sat down with Dr. Courtney Owens, Lecturer in Management and Leadership at Alliance Manchester Business School, Lisa Shaftesley, Head of People at Booking.com, and Jo Ahmed, Partner in Global Employer Services and member of the North West Leadership Team at Deloitte, to discuss leadership in VUCA environments. Here are our key takeaways from their conversation.
Prioritise the employee perspective
Mass remote working removed many traditional methods replied upon by leaders to manage their people. Through the pandemic, engagement with employees transitioned from a ‘push’ to a ‘pull’. Without the usual ‘rules’ of the office to push employees into work, how do we pull them in?
Lisa feels the first step is to ‘lead from the employee perspective’. A strong employee value proposition sits at the heart of this. Leaders should make their organisations genuinely great places to work, paying close attention to flexible working and wellbeing.
Be true to your company values
A central part of employee value propositions are company values. These can’t just be words on a poster. Lisa said, “Our workforce is very savvy. They can tell if something is a one-off or if you live and breathe it.” Verifying whether organisations’ values are true only takes a quick internet search. To recruit and retain top talent, leaders must turn business values into employment practices.
This is especially important for Gen Z. Courtney hears from many organisations that younger generations especially are looking for alignment between company values and their personal values. Diversity, inclusion and ESG are, for many prospective employees, just as important as salary. So, leaders should ensure every aspect of their employee value proposition is compelling.
Inclusivity supports talent retention
To pull their workforce into the office, leaders have to step into employees’ shoes - understanding their unique needs. And recognising that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
It’s perhaps no surprise that a hot topic post-pandemic is inclusivity. Jo believes that “the pandemic made us think more collaboratively…wherever people are, whatever they’re doing, we want them to feel part of [Deloitte’s] infrastructure in the North West.”
Courtney praised remote working as a catalyst for authentic connection. Video calls open a window into a colleague’s home life – their living space, family members, pets. It not only personalises our working experiences, but allows us to see and understand cultural differences, without needing to travel. These deeper connections lay the foundation for an inclusive working environment.
At Deloitte, flexible working has benefitted inclusivity and, in turn, talent retention. Deloitte allows employees to work internationally for up to 20 days per year (in locations permitted by law). Some tag a week’s work onto a holiday. Others spend valuable personal time with loved ones overseas. Jo said, “By embracing diversity and inclusion, we’ve been rewarded with loyalty from employees.”
Workspace forms a core part of the pull for employees. Booking.com moved into new premises in February 2023. Whilst plenty of organisations have ditched offices altogether, Booking.com made their ‘campus’ employee-centric with hybrid in mind.
First and foremost, it must be as easy to work in the office as it is at home. Leaders should consider what employees need and want. Amenities on employees’ wish lists include collaboration spaces, auditoriums, podcasting studios and UX labs. And of course, there’s no better draw than a good meal. Lisa shared that free high-quality lunches are a big incentive for her employees – with teams planning their office days around this menu.
Support employees’ mental health
Courtney clarified that leaders shouldn’t focus on the bricks and mortar but the space’s ‘capability to facilitate people’. Leaders need to create space for social interaction to support employees’ mental health - another subject that ought to be front of mind for leaders.
Good mental health goes hand-in-hand with connection and belonging. For new starters, the office is often a ‘lifeline’. Jo said, “A great workspace can facilitate employees building their network in the city.” Particularly if they’re new to the role or the area, it’s not just their professional network but their personal one too.
For Deloitte in the North West, it’s about aligning purpose with the office. Whether it’s dedicated team days, social events, or time to support charity partners, the office is where collaboration and positive change happen.
Distribution of power
When leading executive education programmes at Alliance Manchester Business School, Courtney helps leaders accommodate different employee preferences and manage across them. To do this well involves letting go of outdated leadership ‘rules’.
Contrary to traditional perceptions of leadership, power sharing is essential to thriving in VUCA environments. Courtney said, “Distributive leadership involves a power give, not a power grab.” Leaders today must empower and guide employees.
In an unstable environment, there isn’t just one person who knows the truth. When leaders distribute power among colleagues they trust with diverse perspectives, they then gain more ‘cohesive power’ back.
Courtney sees this collaborative principle brought to life on her programmes. She views executive education as the bridge between research and reality. Alliance Manchester Business School’s academics bring the latest ideas to their programmes and co-create the learning with delegates. She said, “The conversation is so valuable when you bring all those voices together in one space.”
Overall, the conversation highlighted a fundamental responsibility for leaders in VUCA environments: pulling others in. Whether that’s pulling them into employment, the office, or positions of power, with distributive leadership organisations become much more than the sum of their parts.