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Leadership through the lens: How to pass on experience and knowledge in a virtual working environment

KPMG's Mark Essex
By Mark Essex

Leading teams in a virtual world is harder. It requires effort, concentration and planning. But, for business leaders passing on their experience gained over a lifetime, it’s an investment. And the return is higher for family businesses.

Hybrid working is not a phase we’ll grow out of, it’s a new reality. Even the most ‘bricks and mortar’ businesses are engaging virtually with customers, suppliers and potential recruits. And as I previously argued, we won’t settle down on new norms for some time yet. 

This brings enormous advantages to some parts of our work. I’m writing this piece in my conservatory in complete quiet… Bliss! I always struggled to concentrate on focussed work in an open plan office. Is that just me? 

Learning is easier too. So much of the training material we access now is virtual, just pop in your earphones and enjoy multimedia content whenever it suits. I would have struggled to find a trainer to go through which buttons to press at 6am or 10pm before. For procedural training or knowledge acquisition, there’s no going back.

How should we approach leadership through the lens? First, we need to recognise it’s harder and put the effort in.

But some skills are harder to acquire this way. What some call ‘soft skills’. I was never keen on this phrase: not least because I found some of these skills pretty hard to learn. Let’s call them leadership skills from here on. We put in the effort to acquire them, shadowing senior colleagues, observing their body language and subtle glances, peripheral signals. Now, we have to pass this on through the 2mm wide piece of glass which is our webcam lens. It doesn’t have peripheral vision. I have colleagues whose partner, kids and pets I know by name but when I was told today that someone I’ve been dealing with for months is six months pregnant you realise that there’s a lot of information that doesn’t make it through that lens!

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KPMG's Mark Essex

It’s not just about camera angles. It’s also those liminal moments we miss. The post-meeting debrief in the cab or the drive home... “Why did you do that?”; “What was it about their behaviour that prompted you to change your mind?”; “I missed the buying signals”. Somehow, we never seem to schedule those debriefs into the diary and now those micro-learning opportunities disappear as our avatars move straight to the next back-to-back Zoom call. When do we consolidate, compare notes or plan the next session with our future leaders?

For family business leaders the investment in the next generation is just that – an investment.

How then should we approach leadership through the lens? First, we need to recognise its harder and put the effort in. We must spend some of the time we save in travel on planning. Be deliberate about explaining why we do what we do. Find time which we used to have ‘for free’ on the way back from a real-life meeting. It’s harder and it’s new and it’s clunky and we’ll have to work at it. But family business leaders have an advantage; they are sure of the return. Leaders in other businesses have a next generation which is committed potentially only as long as their notice period. You’d forgive them for being tempted to skip that hard work. But for family business leaders the investment in the next generation is just that – an investment.

Of course, when we try to adapt our leadership style for the next generation, we discover new challenges. More and more of our staff have limited experience of the pre-pandemic way of working. Our newest recruits have known nothing but a digital childhood and have known only a virtual or hybrid workplace. Next year’s graduates are the students who had their A-levels disrupted. For the next ten years, entrants to the workplace will have had a school career disrupted by the pandemic. Their expectations will be totally different to new entrants from even five years ago.  What motivates them is not what motivated us. They may challenge us to reflect on our own approach to leadership.

For example, when we insist on people coming into the office is it possible that we are bringing people out of an environment which they navigate with ease into an environment we are more successful in? We should ask ourselves: are doing that for their benefit or for our convenience?

Adapting our leadership styles to the people we lead is the mark of a great business leader.

We need to make judgments about which lessons they should learn from our experience and which they get from their peers. Who might be sharing that experience via a sixty second video from another continent. Maybe the next generation can manage just fine in their relationships without seeing the back of someone’s head. Feels weird to me. But tomorrow’s world is their world. 

Adapting our leadership styles to the people we lead is the mark of a great business leader. So, are we going to go one step further and unlearn some of our habits built up over decades to adapt to the new leadership challenges?

My top tip: Next time you go to a virtual meeting with a junior colleague, manufacture a fake cab ride home so another Zoom call doesn’t squeeze in. Make notes about what just happened. Think about the questions you’re going to ask your future leader. You aren’t done when you click off that virtual meeting.

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