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Leadership In Crisis – Be A Guide Into The Unknown


My name is Sari van Poelje. I’m the director of Intact Academy and Team Agility. At Team Agility we help businesses innovate more quickly than their products and become agile in a turbulent environment. In Intact Academy we organize training programs for coaches and consultants to help businesses innovate. I’ve been a consultant for 35 years and a leader in multinational businesses for 23 years, and one thing I’ve learned over time is how to deal with crisis.

I had a discussion yesterday with some of the best executive coaches in the Netherlands and we were talking about themes that were coming up in this Corona crisis and what it means for our profession. As we were sharing, I was thinking, well actually maybe we’re in a space where none of us really knows what’s going to happen to our profession and maybe that’s going to become our profession. To be a guide in the unknown, to look into the abyss and to guide people through it or across it or under it or over it.

First Unknown: The Balance Between Work & Home

Some of the themes that have been coming up with my clients are at a personal level: the balance between home and work. What I’m noticing here is that there are two things that preoccupy people at the moment. One is a sense of isolation and how do you keep in touch with people while you’re still in your bubble. And the other is the lack of structure , especially for people with kids at home.  How do we structure our day so that it becomes meaningful and that we still have time for ourselves and the kids and everything we have to do? 

A lot of the coaching at the personal level is about this theme of isolation and lack of structure. What I also see is that a lot of people are dreaming more for some reason. Some people are seeing new opportunities in the market and some people are actually saying, I like the rhythm of the Corona so much that I’m willing to stop working altogether. 

I find myself after a period of 35 years of consultancy and coaching in what I call the fertile void. So I’m not, especially hunting like some of my colleagues are for new Corona opportunities and I’m trusting the universe. Simon calls for new answers to new questions. 

Second Unknown: Paradoxes

Also, at a more systemic level is that I see businesses dealing with some paradoxes. 

For instance, some businesses are still using management control as the old paradigm, and others are moving towards trust at the other side of the dimension. 

During this crisis people are working from home. For years I’ve been talking to leaders about the opportunities and the well-being of their employees when they’re allowed to work at home. I’ve often heard things like:   “But we can’t control them. How can we trust them? How do we know they’re doing their work?” What I’m noticing in this time of CoronaVirus where we’ve all been forced to work at home, that leadership styles have been forced to change as well.

Instead of this control and command style, being on top of your employees, leaders have been forced to accept that people work from home and trust that they do their work. And low and behold, in general employees have said they felt much better, they didn’t have the stress of travel. They’ve been doing their work and they’ve been settling in a rhythm that also allows them to live. It’s better for nature as well.

At a personal level, and in leadership there’s a shift between this old paradigm of management control to a new paradigm of trust. There are businesses at the moment who are trying to go back to normal. Personally I really hope that nobody goes back to normal because normal for us meant exploitation. It meant industrialization. It meant globalization. 

Going back to normal for me would be a missed opportunity. 

As the Corona measures are being relaxed, some companies are picking up their production, they’re doing everything as if nothing has happened, which is quite bizarre frankly. Other businesses have moved to a state of agility. Previously we would do strategic planning for the next 10 years. Now we’re lucky if we can do it three months ahead. So maybe that is the way forward: to have both a long-term intention and be prepared for a short term strategy, which comes closer to the agile scrum way of working.

Third Unknown: Questioning Globalisation

Some businesses are starting to question globalization. 

During this crisis, we’ve noticed that globalization has brought to our attention the very vulnerable dependencies we’ve created between countries and with suppliers in different countries. To be frank some suppliers in different countries don’t respect the environmental measures we have here, it’s what’s come to light very starkly. Most of us knew this already. We’ve been exploiting countries like China who don’t respect laws concerning pollution and labour. Now there is a crisis, when the borders are closed, globalization doesn’t work as a strategy anymore. 

We are at a point in history where there’s still some focus on growth as the main driver of business. And maybe we should be asking ourselves what is the natural stop to growth? When should we stop growing and when should we start innovating for a better world? 

So to summarize, at the personal level, I see three main themes. It’s work home, the recurrence of dreams, and the anxiety about income, opportunity or new purpose. And at the business level, what I see is this change of leadership style and the question around globalization, localization and dependency. 

I certainly hope we don’t go back to normal but start innovating for a better world.

Published On: June 18th, 2020By Categories: Leadership, Videos


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