Unleashing sustainable speed in a post-COVID world: Reshape talent

In parts one and two of this series on what organizations can learn from the pace at which many companies had to operate as the pandemic unfolded, we reviewed the first six actions that can help unleash sustainable speed.

In this final post of the series, we address the last three actions—all aiming to reshape talent to get tomorrow’s leadership team operational today and to build the workforce capabilities of the future:

7. Field tomorrow’s leaders today: One of the unexpected consequences of the pandemic is that CEOs have seen into a window that shows who their future leaders are. They have seen who can make decisions and execute rapidly, who is able to take on new challenges and lead in the face of uncertainty, and who has the grit to persevere. In many cases, leaders have found emerging talent 2-3 layers down, people who rose to the occasion and helped lead crisis-response and plan-ahead strategies. In other cases, they have found that some leaders have become too comfortable with the slower-moving bureaucracy of the past.

One recent example comes from a U.S. automaker. In March, the company announced that it would produce face shields for healthcare workers—something it had never done before. To do so, a team of “unlikely characters” organized itself and got to work, tapping into their own networks to solve problems on the fly. One lesson: Those who step up in a challenge, wrote one team member, “…might not be who you expect. We came as beginners and got smart on the job. Being a band of beginners means if you think of it, you do it. There is no time for rank.”

8. Learn how to learn: Consider the U.S. Navy’s newest “littoral combat ship.” These vessels can complete myriad tasks, such as hunting submarines or sweeping mines while operating in the shallows. One might think they have a large crew of highly trained specialists, but they are run by just 40 “hybrid sailors,” who have proved capable of mastering a wide variety of skills. They learn continuously, are open to new experiences and are flexible in their thinking. And that, COVID-19 has demonstrated, is what business needs too.

In the past few months, some of the best leadership teams have been on a steep learning curve: learning how to lead in a time of crisis, manage rapidly forming agile teams, make decisions at a much faster pace, and adapt. Forward-thinking companies are now accelerating their capability-building efforts by developing leadership and critical thinking skills at different levels of the organization, increasing their employees’ capacity to engage with technology and use advanced analytics, and building functional skills for the future, such as next-generation procurement, Industry 4.0 manufacturing, and digital marketing and sales.

9. Rethink the role of CEOs and leaders: COVID-19 has brought a fundamental change in leadership to many organizations. The leaders who stand out have shifted from directing a command-and-control crisis response to building and unleashing winning teams. Several CEOs described their role in the past few months as energizing, empowering, and “unblocking” their leadership teams. They also overinvest in communicating clearly and regularly to build trust, and constantly link their actions to the purpose of the institution.

To maintain the speed the COVID-19 crisis has unleashed, organizations need more of this kind of leadership. The future requires leaders to act as visionaries instead of commanders—focused on inspiring their organizations with a clear vision of the future, and then empowering others to realize the vision.

There is no time like the present for organizations to build speed; the coronavirus pandemic is the challenge of our times. Fortune will favor the bold—and the speedy.

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