The Dawn of the Versatile Leader

The Dawn of the Versatile Leader


It has been almost a year since the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, throwing the world into immediate turmoil. Since then, we’ve been through a series of targeted lockdowns, and more than half of the global workforce is now working remotely.

We sat down with Hanover Fox director, Neil Watkins, to discuss how companies have had to change their style of leadership over the last 12 months to fit what has become the new normal.

“Hanover Fox deals with a wide range of companies and organisations where we speak to a large number of people about the roles that we are looking to fill for them,” says Neil. “And because I haven’t been able to visit and interview face-to-face, I’ve done a lot more video calls than ever before. I’ve also been privileged enough to speak to a large number of people across the whole of Europe. There have been differences between countries, but the restrictions on travel have had quite a significant knock-on effect onto people that are in leadership positions.”

All of which has put a significant emphasis on technology and online meetings, with companies quite quickly adapting to those changes – getting up to speed with technology and training their staff. So that ability to adapt – to be a versatile leader – is coming increasingly more into focus.

“I think it’s a very apt and very appropriate description. Versatility is something which has come up a lot in our discussions and interviews with both my clients and potential candidates as well,” says Neil. “I would describe a versatile leader as someone who’s able to flex their leadership style to fit the people in the situations they want to influence. So, they’ve had to adopt a range of approaches, which they can adapt as required, and not perhaps be the single rigid way of leading or interacting with others that they’ve done in the past. That ability to be versatile is probably one of the most important components of leading effectively today. They may not see it necessarily in that way, but unquestionably in my mind, there’s a link between success and versatility at the highest level in a leadership position.”

At the beginning of the shift to remote working, there was an eagerness to be almost too versatile, but now we’re nearly 12-months in, that has settled back down with leaders more comfortable with their new environments.

“People were tending to over communicate – there was almost a too rigid approach with too many meetings and too much contact, which is kind of perverse really when you think about the fact that you are working remotely,” says Neil. “I think people exceeded the brief. Whereas now a number of people have reduced the amount of screen time and contact time, as that original fear of people becoming too remote and forgotten has faded with time.”

Now, the versatile leader is much more about having a capacity to read and respond to the changes. The best leaders are typically those that are better at reading change and responding to it.

“Anecdotal feedback has been that they’ve often had to be versatile to the culture of the different countries they’re dealing with,” Neil says. “For example, dealing with somebody in Northern Europe has been very different to the way they’ve had to deal with people in Southern Europe. Cultural differences have played a big part in being effective in managing this situation. There is a lot pointing towards versatility being really at the heart of what will make new and successful leaders of the future.”

One quote that stuck out to us from the Harvard Business Review stated that: ‘Compassion at a time of crisis is an important manifestation of leadership’, pointing towards management becoming more caring since the pandemic began.

“In our dealings with a large American global software business, they put a huge amount of effort into the caring, compassionate side of dealing with their employees, for example” Neil says. “They have run several webinars based around the concept of mindfulness, of relaxation, of overcoming the anxiety that people will be going through, not being able to meet up with their teams, and obviously managing people further down the organisation. They have employed some fairly senior and well-known gurus in this area. They’ve even put on entertainment evenings, to try to engender the kind of engagement and team spirit that might be lacking due to the situation.”

There’s also a risk that people are beginning to over commit to their jobs, as it’s easy when working from home – for instance – not to take a break, a lunch, or finish on time.

“Some organisations have been giving extra holidays because people have been almost over-committing to their job,” says Neil. “They’ve been over performing, and so they’ve been burning out a little bit. And that’s been picked up on and people have been almost forced to have holidays to give them some downtime, there’s less time to do your social bit. You can’t leave home if you’re in a lockdown. So, people have been turning to work at times they probably wouldn’t have done in the past.”

More than ever, it’s important that your team know why you lead and how you lead.

“It’s terribly important for people to be more open these days, about the way they work. And that’s certainly a trend,” Neil says. “But businesses still have to survive, still have to make a profit. My personal view is that this situation will have long term effects, but there will be a return to some normality. But I think some of the benefits that have arisen from the way people have had to operate in the last 12 months will continue.”

Companies themselves are evolving and learning far more in a shorter space of time than they otherwise would have.

“I know that companies have been very surprised at how much money they saved simply from travel and living expenses, and therefore more scrutiny will be applied to that in the future – ‘is this meeting necessary?’” says Neil. “I think quite rightly, people will challenge the need to travel quite as often as in the past. There will be other things that will come to the fore, that will be more business enabling that I think we probably don’t even know about at this stage.”

There is a trend now that management teams are ensuring they get structures and operational systems in place to ensure they exit this crisis as leaner, stronger and more resilient.

“I think there’s going to be quite a bit of training and thought put into improving some of the enabling sides that are required when you’re dealing with people at more of a distance,” says Neil. “Things like taking charge and empowering people – being less demanding and more supportive. And then the distinction between strategic and operational leadership is a big thing. The first steps towards helping leaders becoming more versatile, in helping them assess their current abilities, how they can help and improve their style in the future.”

Neil thinks that people are realising that management training, style and culture are all things that will be shifting in the near future.

“There’s no question about that,” he says. “Versatile leaders tend to have had a more diverse career path, and work experience, than others. They have worked across different sectors and different cultures, so they have a broader palette of experience to draw upon. Seeking experiences in different businesses gives a great platform for preparing yourself for leadership challenges in the future.”

The second issue that Neil feels is important, is to make sure that ongoing feedback and development structures are in place.

“I think it’s absolutely crucial that people don’t stick to a rigid management style. Once you get stuck in a rut, that’s not good for organisations. That continuation of needing to question the way that managers operate and how they lead their teams is so important.

Building on the theme of versatility, Neil’s third strategy for developing versatility is in general personal development: becoming a more well-rounded person.

“Being aware of opposing skills and behaviours, and not being necessarily too blinded by one’s strengths, versatile leaders show a pattern of really stepping up – beyond the familiar and comfortable – and stretching themselves. All of these things will be built into the requirements in the future, when clients are looking for new talent.”

The last year has seen huge versatility from both managers and businesses, looking at how to survive and emerge from the Covid crisis leaner, stronger and more resilient. As we look to the future, having an eye on what changes to keep and what to let go of will be more important than ever before.