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Thriving as a leader in hybrid

| November 2, 2021

by Justin Sipher

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Justin Sipher, Program Leader, Leadership Coach and Consultant at MOR Associates.  Justin may be reached at [email protected].]
Here we stand, November 2021, twenty plus months into the global pandemic that has altered so many aspects of our lives and work.  Higher education has been forced to rethink many long-held beliefs of how to enable education and research missions, and how employees do their work.  The fall 2021 semester is the “most normal” our institutions have been since the fall 2019 semester, yet still precautions are taken, and the risk of setback lingers in the air as the race between vaccination and virus mutation continues.  You have probably seen us discuss Respond – Adapt – Transform previously,  I’d like to add Repeat to the end of that as it’s a continual iteration cycle needed for success.
As we know, the only thing consistent has been the inconsistency by which we have needed to do our work as circumstances have changed, and then changed yet again.  For many, work before March 2020 was largely in-person.  Then most of us faced months, if not over a year of remote work.  Now, many teams are facing different degrees of hybrid working arrangements, with only a few organizations fully returning to work arrangements that existed before the pandemic, and some already deciding to never go back to previous situations.  However, many working arrangements are likely a non-permanent setup as institutions read and react to the circumstances.
MOR has been privileged to work with hundreds of alums and those new to MOR throughout 2021 with several targeted short programs.  These programs were first aimed at leading and managing in a virtual world and more recently, learning and managing in a hybrid world.  Through these programs a few themes surfaced which leaders are using to successfully navigate the new and continually evolving realities.
Perhaps foundational for leaders is to understand that the thinking about work and how it’s accomplished needs to be realigned.  Applying the mindset and the approaches to work that were successful before the pandemic shift, or even earlier in the pandemic, will likely not result in successfully balancing needs of the institution and individuals .  A new mental model to approach work is critical.  Our historical formal and informal measures, often revolving around a person’s time at work, are not possible with remote/hybrid work and also fail to acknowledge the new needs and realities of the whole person, not just the person as an employee.  Failed attempts to micromanage professionals, such as keystroke monitors or excessively checking when someone is “online or not,” all run the likely risk of not making people feel valued and trusted.  Valuing and trusting employees enables their best work. People in many circumstances still need increased flexibility to address other obligations in their personal lives, or they simply have rebalanced their lives during this period of time and now want different realities.  That doesn’t mean they can’t and won’t be committed to their professional obligations.  It just means it may happen in ways, and at times, different than in the past.  Leaders need to understand this and find the correct balance between possibly competing priorities for service coverage and ultimate success.  Failure to accept this new reality with an all-new mental model and failure to find win-win scenarios could lead to talent departures while other employers acknowledge this and create the necessary flexibility.
The well-balanced leader in this hybrid world may need to situationally rethink priorities and how time is invested.  The Leading, Managing, and Doing buckets may all be overflowing, but intentionality, and focusing on the impact and implications of what is done or not, will provide clarity on how to invest time optimally.  Everyone’s role is different.  Therefore the optimal percentage breakdown between the three categories will be unique.  When leaders can help their teams look through the lens of impact & implications, clarity can surface about the true priorities and risks.  The most successful leader will know how they should be investing their time, and then creating structures that support that allocation.
In addition to investing our time optimally, a leader who understands that their empathy can be a valuable superpower for their colleagues and teams is critical. This has always been true.  If we reflect on the leaders we followed in our career and in our life, those who were able to balance being a strong and strategic leader with a sense of empathy for those around them were likely ones we were drawn to.  This is certainly the case in my life and career.  What has come to the foreground the past twenty plus months is how important this is, as our personal lives are more challenging and complex.  Our colleagues are dealing with many circumstances.  The resulting pressures are often unprecedented.  The empathetic leader can help organizations improve innovation, engagement, retention, and inclusivity outcomes.

Lastly, what has surfaced as perhaps the most important leadership attribute in the hybrid world we are navigating is that of an intentionally inclusive facilitator.  Though leading in a hybrid environment has spotlighted the need for better meeting processes and equitable contributions, this has been a long outstanding improvement opportunity. As teams have become situationally hybrid it has raised the bar for what leaders must do to facilitate inclusive dialog when participants are on unequal footing.  It’s very easy for groups to become fractured when unequal and some participants feel marginalized in engagement processes.  In addition to that feeling, we are not benefiting from some team member insights when not included equally. This is a skill that needs to translate not only for hybrid leadership, but leadership in general.  Leadership practices around hybrid engagements and meetings should include:

  • Intentional facilitation seeking input from those connecting from afar.  This might include someone being designated as the liaison to watch for desired participation from remote colleagues.
  • Use technology that translates equality between remote and in-person.  A leader using a whiteboard that the remote people can’t see isn’t acceptable.
  • Situationally calling on people who are remote to chime-in initially and not simply asking the remote people at the end “anything to add” would go a long way to make everyone feel included.

Leadership has never been more critical for individual and collective success.  However, not just any leadership will do in these current times.  Intentional, strategic, empathetic, balanced, inclusive, and informed are terms that come to mind of what we need in our leaders.  All wrapped around a willingness and ability to adopt new mental models of what success looks like and how we support our people and their needs.  All this while focused on accomplishing what institutions need from us.  What can you do, leading from where you are, to help with this?  It seems daunting but can and frankly must be done!


Updated November 6, 2021.