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Leveraging the Power of Learning Groups in Times of Crisis

By Brenda Steinberg based on discussions with Omar Alguthmi, Nicolas Petrovic, Alexandre Merigay and Lorraine Mutambiranwa.

Coaching groups of leaders in a global executive education programs are always stimulating; you get to work with talented people and facilitate lifelong learnings that ripple across the globe. This has never felt truer for me as it has when working with a group from a recent program as they grapple with the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on their organizations and their professional and personal lives. This combination of talented, curious leaders and extraordinary world events created a special bond; and through their sharing and challenging of each other, they developed inspirational learnings to share with other leaders seeking to adapt to the “new normal”. 

This learning group was formed in a recent cohort of the Transition to Business Leadership Program at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Switzerland. It is a diverse group in many senses, comprised of five people, one person each from the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, South Africa, and Switzerland. There are 3 men and 2 women, ages 30-45, and they work in education, financial, high tech, and luxury goods. There is also a cross-section of large, medium, and small companies, as well as public, private, and family businesses. 

Because the conversations have been so rich, we have captured some of these learnings in the hope that they will inspire you. 

Value your home: Like many executives, before the crisis the leaders in this group worked long hours in the office and traveled. The “Stay at Home” order obligated them to get to know their space and to appreciate their physical environment. Home is a place to inhabit, to feel safe, and to appreciate, not just to pass through. While they are all looking forward to venturing out again when it is safe, they want to keep this new relationship with their home.

Have faith that hard moments pass: Many group members felt like they have been personally tested during this crisis making them question their life choices, their ability to endure hardship and to guide their business through the crisis. While at first these feelings were overwhelming, they passed. They learned that they would find their “right” answer and they look forward to bringing this self-knowledge and strength forward.

Find joy, even in the midst of sorrow: Some members of the group have been seriously challenged by the global pandemic and economic uncertainty. In spite of these difficulties, all members have claimed moments of joy and beauty. These joyful moments can make one feel guilty, because so many others are suffering. However, the group learned that feeling gratitude builds strength and resilience, and that communicating this lesson helped their organizations, teams, and families. 

Build and maintain the truly important relationships: Uniformly group members gained clarity about who was most important in both their personal and work lives. Reaching out and sharing meaningful experiences was affirming; it helped during those dark moments. In the new normal, they want to continue to emphasize the relationships in their personal and work lives that truly matter. 

Recognize that you are a different leader now: Hardship tests your skills and presents opportunities to step up your game. As a leader of a large organization explained, in order to support the whole company, he needed to truly rely on his team. In this virtual situation he was obligated to delegate, support and trust. Another leader recognized that the forced distance required her to listen better and be more present improving the quality of the interactions. Another leader, who felt more comfortable observing first, found that this crisis required her to be more visible and active. All of these were previously identified leadership development points, but the crisis forced them to accelerate these development areas. The challenge is now to continue to utilize these new skills.

Embrace the possibilities the crisis has created: During the past 8 weeks, our people and our organizations did things they always said cannot be done. This means we must continue to challenge the way business is done, and make sure that we are not standing in the way of changing our organizations. Our organizations managed with people working at home and traveling less. These actions reduced the individual and organizational carbon footprint; thoughtful reductions in the carbon footprint must be part of business practices. Additionally, what else are we saying no to that should be challenged? 

Incorporate health into your “new normal”: Establishing protocols to keep people safe from Covid-19 is critical, but this learning is much broader. Exercise and meditation kept people sane. Three members who wanted to start exercise or healthy eating regimes actually did – one lost 7 kg. There is also recognition of fatigue from increased screen time and virtual meetings. Going forward, we must think, talk and act more broadly regarding health issues.

Recognize that everyone’s path to the “new normal” will be different: While there are common learnings, everyone’s experience of the confinement was different. Quarantining alone or with young children, a slowed down department or one under pressure, and/or being in a higher risk population are a few examples of the different experiences, and this will impact how and when they are ready to commit to building the new normal. Draw upon your listening and empathy skills to gage their readiness and include them in building the path forward.

Focus on your “aha” moments: There have likely been one or more moments during this period where you had sudden clarity about what your role or the role of your business should be. Focus on that going forward. For example, one person in the luxury business said that he was thinking about his customers in a new way and that this will drive the future of his business. Another mentioned clarity around his most valuable suppliers and who he wants to work with. Make sure these insights are front and center as business starts to pick-up.

Perhaps most importantly was the recognition that as leaders, they have a role in driving learning through the organization.  The opportunity to be part of a learning group and reflecting on what is happening is powerful. One of the most important things leaders can do, is to drive learning though their organizations.  We are all in this together.

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