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  • Writer's pictureCarl Fransman

In times of change, leadership makes the difference

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

2020 has been a year of continuous adaptation to a fast-changing environment: COVID-19 has not just - temporarily or indefinitely - incapacitated part of the workforce, it has required individuals, companies and governments to adapt; not just once, but continuously. As we discovered more about the virus, as the first, then subsequent waves hit, as governments applied stricter, then looser, then even stricter rules, etc.

This continuous change has tired employees who, having to work from home, couldn't fall back on mutual support the way the were used to. Some sectors were hit harder than others and all our sympathy goes to those who've had to close down for long periods (culture sector, horeca, etc.).

There's also good news: while restaurants had to close, some actually maintained equal revenue by focusing on take-away (and not just fast-food places!). Others have finally taken the time to evaluate their wine cellar inventories and sold off vintage bottles which, frankly, should've been drunk many years ago. Many of these smaller businesses have done this out of survival instinct but also because there's a true sense of responsibility for the team.

In larger corporations the size of the workforce (and, often, remoteness) doesn't allow for personal relationships between all employees. The managerial reflex of cost control, if not balanced by strong leadership and vision, leads to some hastened decisions to cut the workforce in reaction to changing market conditions. The current crisis is, however, a temporary one and sending ripples through the workforce may have more lasting impact than one thinks:

  1. other employees not part of the layoff wave may question their future with their employer and move to a seemingly more stable one

  2. when the market picks up again, there will likely be a war for talent which, at that point, is probably more expensive to hire

  3. all the effort put in hiring and training your workforce is lost and will have to be re-done upon hiring a replacement workforce

The difference between management and leadership - and let's agree that both are necessary - is that management focuses on ticking the boxes, matching the numbers, etc. while leaders keep the ship sailing towards the target - and let's also agree that it's a continuously moving target.

The current crisis hasn't been negative for all though; some companies have actually flourished - think of the vaccine makers, home-working platforms, etc. Even though theirs is a luxury problem - faster growth than could possibly be anticipated - they face equally daunting challenges of materialising the potential. Think of vaccine makers suddenly needing billions of flasks, syringes, transportation, warehousing, etc. A disruption of 'the normal' requires resilience and the capacity to adapt in a timely fashion. This too, requires a combination of strong management and leadership.

In times of change, teams are required to 'go the extra mile', put in long hours, often at off-hour times. I've seen this over and over again: either the workforce is moaning and complaining about that extra work (and hindsight shows it didn't do much good) or people or at it with a 'gung-ho we can conquer the world' mentality. When asking about their motivation, the latter group never mentions salary but always 'our company' or 'our boss'.

Focusing on the human side, there are great managers, great leaders and (a much rarer breed) great leader/managers. Many corporate structures tend to - unfortunately - favorise managers for moving up the ranks (leadership is harder to quantify than managerial skills) and we regularly read of companies going belly-up because they were 'managed to death'. Back in the day, people used to call Kodak the 'ministry of photography'. We've all read business cases of how they kept focusing on their existing business and failed to grasp opportunities offered by new technologies (often created internally; i.e. the digital camera).

If anything, the year 2020 has shown us that managing talent is central to corporate success.

Employee well-being, sense of belonging and feeling useful (sense of contribution) are focal points made even more crucial in situations where remote work is becoming the norm. At the same time, remote employees must be monitored (maybe not by activity but rather on results?) for performance and managing the workforce becomes even tougher when mixing remote and local workforces. A new dynamic is evolving, both horizontal and vertical! This requires an adaptation of management (techniques) and leadership approach.

And first and foremost, leadership must kickstart the change in management...

Here's a link to an interesting article on Critical traits of catalytic leadership by venture firm Momenta Partners:


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