Staff Writer
Jul 22, 2020

Will the current crisis lead to shifts in leadership styles?

We sit down (virtually, of course) with company leaders from Twitter, Spotify and Visa to find out.

[from left] Freddie Covington Corbett, Maya Hari and Jan-Paul Jeffrey
[from left] Freddie Covington Corbett, Maya Hari and Jan-Paul Jeffrey

This is part of an article series for the Power List 2020, created in partnership with Twitter as part of their global #LeadersforGood initiative. 

Needless to say, the current pandemic is putting leadership styles under the microscope. 

How should leaders deal with crises? Is there a guide? (No.) Can they look to past crises? (Only to an extent.). Is there a ‘right tone’ to adopt? (Perhaps.)

While much of the conversation has been around how brands are reacting to crises, discussed extensively during a Campaign Connect panel discussion on June 3, the one question at the top of some has shifted to: what does the future look like? 

Many countries and companies are already plotting what a recovery phase might look like - while also exercising caution due to fears of second and third wave spikes. 

For many brand leaders, there was no playbook to follow in Q1 of 2020, there is no playbook to follow now. 

We are in unprecedented times and have never had situations where our team and partners have had to work in this way before,” says Jan-Paul Jeffrey, head of marketing, SEA, at Spotify. 

Maya Hari, VP and managing director, APAC at Twitter concurs. “The truth about today, tomorrow or the rest of the year is that we simply don't know how the pandemic will continue to unfold in different markets. With such uncertainty, it falls to brands to adapt and react quickly, while still staying true to their core values and missions.”

Putting people first

While fears of subsequent waves are preventing the formulation of a straightforward recovery strategy, one thing that company leaders have been saying at the beginning of the crisis, and are still adhering to is: putting people first. 

Hari notes, “The crisis has taught me to allow space for other people to experience the emotions they are feeling. Jumping into solution mode in this crisis would not be the best thing to do right up front, but having the emotional awareness to allow employees almost a holding space and a grieving time for people to just absorb what is going on.” 

In times of lockdowns and WFH policies, brand leaders are not only doing regular check-ins, but ensuring their employees have access to pivotal health resources. 

Jeffrey says Spotify is doing regular ‘pulse checks’ and ramping up existing employee mental health support initiatives to help employees ride out these challenging times. The company’s 

Freddie Covington Corbett, Visa’s SVP, marketing and cross border, Asia Pacific, says that she is using technology to connect with colleagues, neighbours and strangers. 

Leaders have become more human, transparent, and accessible. Our Visa CEO, Al Kelly, does a weekly video from his home to all employees and virtual drop-in visits into teams around the world. We all feel “invited” to his house every week and that’s been amazing in terms of motivation and creating a true family feeling across the company,” she notes.

Helping the community get back on their feet 

The ‘putting people first’ mantra isn’t limited to employees. The most forward-looking leaders are those who are not only leading within their companies, but also the industry. 

In the early days of the pandemic, we’ve seen companies transform their factories into mask-making and hand sanitiser factories. The next step, it appears, is to help local SMEs and creatives - two of the groups hardest hit by the pandemic - get back on their feet. 

Visa has shifted their marketing spend from cross-border travel marketing to supporting e-commerce and small businesses experiencing high consumer demand such as food, grocery, drug stores, pharmacies, and daily essentials. Meanwhile, Spotify has created initiatives such as the Spotify Covid-19 music relief and artist fundraising pick. 

Expect shifts in leadership styles

There has also been a lot of discussion on new leadership styles that might emerge from the current crisis. Will we see the rise of inclusive leadership styles? Others go further to say it’ll usher in more female leaders as they are perceived to be more empathetic. Whether good leadership is intrinsic or influenced by individual life experiences is perhaps, up for debate. 

At times of crises, company heads must also learn to balance between listening and leading. It’s important to give a voice to employees, but it’s equally important to ensure that decisions are made at critical junctures. As Hari noted during the June 3 panel, "[T]aking the onus of some complex and ambiguous decisions out of people's hands, when it comes to the most complex of things, is much appreciated in such times.” 

Meanwhile, Covington predicts there’ll not only be ruptures in organisational structures. Not only are the days of the ‘heroic, all-knowing’ leader gone, the fundamental role of the leader is also shifting. 

In [the] virtual [world], leaders are only effective based on the strength of the network and the social ties they have established. [T]heir role is no longer to centralise decision-making…[but]become catalysts for action and change understanding trends and patterns, encouraging innovation, and acting as sense-makers to give meaning to events rather than trying to control or direct them” says the Visa CMO. “Agility has become a prerequisite. Organizations need to adopt flatter organizational configurations relying on teamwork and networking technology to increase their agility in response to uncertainty and promote leadership that distributes.”

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