Post-Pandemic Leadership: Navigating The Evolving Work Culture

by Hessie Jones

In the wake of a global pandemic that disrupted the way businesses operate, uncertainty has become the norm, not the exception. Routines and the tried-and-true processes have been upended, and leaders are currently faced with the challenge of steering their organizations into uncharted territory. The way things have always been done is now usurped by the necessity to manage in chaos and create an environment that is safe, productive, and effective, without actually risking the loss of team or culture.

I sat down with Carlos Granda, former Google VP of Customer Success, and now a mentor and an advisor to Bain and to private equity firms, where he shares his knowledge about technology, AI and overall customer experience. With over 30 years of experience in the technology industry, Granda offered invaluable insights into the role of leadership in creating a resilient and adaptable culture. We’ll explore Carlos Granda’s thoughts on leadership for startup founders and the expectations in this evolving world.

Carlos Granda’s journey in the tech industry began as a developer, architect, and project manager. As he advanced in his career, it became evident that his true calling lay in leadership. He transitioned to the software business, eventually working with in big tech with companies like SAP, Salesforce, and Google Cloud. His experience at Google during the pandemic presented a unique set of challenges and rewards that reshaped his views on leadership. The pandemic was a defining moment for many leaders, as it demanded quick adaptability without a predefined playbook.

Qualities of a Leader

Granda emphasized that there’s no one-size-fits-all when defining the qualities of a leader as the stage of a startup can greatly impact the required traits. However, adaptability and consistency are important traits that extend across different industries and to companies as they grow from solo to small team to higher staff volumes as they scale. Granda also stressed the importance of having a clear vision and the capability to effectively convey this vision to the team, aptly pointing out the importance of empowerment:

Leaders must focus on empowering their teams and creating a culture that fosters collaboration and innovation. The creation of a culture that encourages open discourse, idea-sharing, and innovation is critical. I would caution against founders who hold tightly to their ideas without soliciting input from the team, urging leaders to lead by example and inspire their teams.”

For many founders, this transition can be demanding, especially when initially perceiving the business as their personal brainchild. The adaptation involves guiding and motivating the team, as opposed to solely dictating directives.

Effective Leadership

In the early stages of starting a business, founders often encounter a multitude of challenges. Rejections and hearing the word “no” become all too familiar. They face closed doors’ skepticism with potential investors or partners doubting their vision. In this phase, resilience becomes pivotal. Founders must have the tenacity to persevere in the face of adversity.

However, adaptability is equally vital. The business landscape is dynamic and ever-changing, and the ability to pivot and adjust strategies can be the key to survival and success. Founders must be agile and willing to evolve with the circumstances.

Granda highlighted the significance of empathy. Understanding the emotions and needs of their team members is essential especially in more trying moments. It’s about acknowledging where their colleagues are coming from emotionally and professionally, and providing support and guidance accordingly.

As they grow, founders will come to realize what strengths are lacking in the team. Just like everyone else, they have their own blind spots, areas where they may lack expertise or experience. Recognizing these blind spots is essential to better lead the team, as Granda explains:

Leaders must surround themselves with individuals whose strengths compensate for these weaknesses, creating a more well-rounded and effective team. This enables leaders to guide their teams with a broader perspective and a deeper understanding of their own limitations.”

Navigating Uncertainty

The pandemic was an unprecedented experience, one without a playbook to guide us. Granda underscores, “the unique aspect of the pandemic was its universal impact. It didn’t discriminate based on job titles, income, or location. It placed everyone on a level playing field. Whether you were a company CEO or a receptionist, the pandemic affected individuals at a personal and professional level. It was a great equalizer.”

Now, many leaders grapple with the challenge of redefining expectations and maintaining this newfound sense of connection. The emphasis has shifted towards prioritizing employee well-being and leading with empathy and authenticity. Granda drew a parallel between leadership and parenting. Leading by example is imperative,

It’s no longer enough to simply tell your team what to do; you must demonstrate those behaviors.”

Since the world reopened, some trends have emerged. Many individuals relocated during the pandemic, seeking new living environments beyond the city due to uncertainty. Companies initially embraced remote work, allowing employees the flexibility to work from various locations. However, there is now a shift in expectations, with organizations, like Google and Microsoft, calling employees back to the office. This transition to a hybrid work model has become a topic of contention.

Numerous studies have shown that remote work during the pandemic did not significantly reduce productivity, shedding light on the importance of trust in the workplace. The issue of trust revolves in the belief that employees are responsible and engaged, regardless of their physical location. In a world where remote and hybrid work are becoming more conventional, leaders must find a balance that addresses the diverse needs of their teams while nurturing a culture of trust and accountability.

Granda adds the significance of empathy and authenticity in navigating these evolving workplace dynamics, “It’s not about where or how work is accomplished, but about how leaders create an environment that enables their teams to excel and adapt in any setting.”

The varied perspectives of different generations within the workforce have been obvious. Granda remarks how older executives may emphasize physical presence to cultivate an in-office culture, while younger employees often seek social connections and the experience of working in an office. Middle management, caught between these generational viewpoints, faces unique challenges related to family obligations and work preferences.

He insists organizations are in the process of finding the right balance and cultivating trust among their employees and underscored,

Organizations must focus on outcomes and outputs rather than micromanaging employees’ physical presence… A healthy culture that encourages remote collaboration and peer-to-peer accountability is paramount in leading teams effectively in this evolving work landscape.”

Building a Culture of Trust

This evolving culture still needs a leader who will continue the current trajectory, while it builds this newfound empathy for team. Granda notes the tricky balance of continuing to perform while managing this evolving culture.

I don’t think there’s such a thing as work-life balance; it’s more about work-life harmony. We need to acknowledge that both work and personal life coexist. It’s about finding harmony between them.

He highlights that the traditional notion of a strict work-life balance doesn’t align with the modern world’s accessibility. In today’s interconnected environment, people often juggle personal and professional responsibilities simultaneously. While on vacation or during personal moments, urgent work matters may arise, and it’s essential to address them without compromising personal life.

Granda presents the need for self-discipline and prioritization in this harmony. He stresses that, as a leader, one should recognize the situations where it’s acceptable to respond to work-related matters without encroaching on significant personal moments,

It’s about understanding your priorities and being disciplined in creating harmony between work and personal life. No one should disrupt essential family moments, but you also need to handle work matters when necessary.”

The Empathetic and Authentic Leader

“Leadership is not about dictating how work should be done but inspiring and enabling teams to thrive in any environment, ” says Granda, whose own experience during the pandemic changed his view on how organizations should lead.

Leaders must have the pulse of those around them: their teams, their clients, their partners – who are all dealing with things that may not be clearly visible. Sometimes they could be having a bad day. As a result, they didn’t deliver well on something before you admonished them and upset them further. Leaders, today, take the time to grasp and really unravel the goings on among their people in their environment.”

Understanding and responding to the diverse needs of your team has become a new focus for leaders. Authenticity is now tablestakes because it humanizes leaders, making them more relatable to their teams. Granda suggests leaders should learn to be active listeners:

True listening means understanding and empathizing with the emotions and perspectives of others, rather than merely waiting for your turn to speak. The ability to create a personal connection with your team is a leadership trait that transcends generational and organizational boundaries. The pandemic has created such a personal connection… it’s brought us a level of humanity as leaders.”

Cultivating Positive Habits

This new awareness requires cultivating positive habits that resonate both at home and in the workplace. Granda relays the importance in nurturing a culture of respect and engagement,

“One of our simple yet powerful habits is having phone-free dinner time with my family. No phones at the table. It’s a time for us to connect and engage. We’ve made this a cultural habit.”

These habits also extend to work. “During presentations, to ensure that everyone pays undivided attention to the speaker, we discouraged the use of laptops or phones. Modeling this behavior is important. If I don’t respect my speakers during presentations, I can’t expect others too. It’s about fostering good habits that show respect to everyone, and in the process, contributing to a healthier and engaged workplace.”

Responding, Not Reacting

One of the most valuable pieces of advice Granda offers is the importance of responding rather than reacting. When faced with a challenging situation or a conflict, taking a moment to process your emotions before responding can make a world of difference. This approach allows for more thoughtful, constructive, and respectful interactions. It’s about recognizing your emotional reactions but choosing not to act on them impulsively.

We all experience a range of emotions that we can’t control, from personal mishaps to business setbacks. What sets leaders apart is how they respond, not react, to these situations.”

Founders, he adds, must exhibit resilience when facing challenges, such as rejection by investors or business setbacks. It’s vital to adapt, seek feedback, and maintain self-awareness to navigate these situations effectively.

“You’re always going to have these emotions and feelings which you can’t control. But how do you respond? That’s the requisite piece of it. Don’t react, respond.”

Granda continues: “Leaders are like ship captains. When a storm hits, they must inspire and lead their team through it, rather than dwelling on the adversity. Have you ever received an email that upset you, especially when someone copies your boss or their boss on it? Your immediate reaction might be to fire off an angry response. Instead, I would advise you write down all your thoughts and emotions in a response email–let it all out– but don’t hit “send” just yet. Instead, sleep on it. The next day, read the email again. Ask yourself, ‘Is it helpful? Does it make me feel better? Is it the right thing to do, or do I need to clarify something?’. In most cases, after some reflection, you’ll decide not to send the initial reaction. This is important because the first response is a reaction, while the second thought-out response allows you to address the issue more calmly and constructively. You can then have a better conversation or seek clarification instead of reacting impulsively to a potential conflict.”

Three Principles that Transcend Great Leaders

Granda specifies three necessary elements that define great leaders:

First, maintain a clear vision and effectively communicate it to the team. Often, teams struggle when they don’t grasp their mission or vision, so it’s crucial to articulate and reinforce it regularly.

Leaders often underestimate the team’s intelligence and don’t share their challenges with them. Sharing decisions helps the team understand why we make certain choices.”

Secondly, foster an authentic culture. As a leader, being authentic and setting an example for the team is vital. Authenticity allows everyone to feel comfortable, freely share their ideas, and trust that their contributions are valued. It’s about creating an environment where people can express themselves and collaborate openly.

It’s about building a culture where respect and open collaboration thrive.”

Finally, cultivate a strong and positive team culture. This includes encouraging humility, collaboration, and mutual respect. Granda believes that having a culture where individuals uplift each other, show respect for each other’s ideas, and work together is essential for any leader.

A culture focused on competitiveness and self-preservation can lead to negative outcomes like distrust and dishonesty. Therefore, nurturing a supportive culture that embodies core values and a clear mission is key.

A strong and positive team culture is the foundation of successful leadership. Leaders should focus on lifting everyone up. Financial success naturally follows a great culture.”

The path forward for leaders in a post-pandemic world is a challenging one. The expectations of employees are diverse, and the rules continue to being written. Carlos Granda’s insights in redefining leadership, which is no longer about rigid authority, but rather about fostering a culture of trust, collaboration, resiliency and shared values that supports the well-being and success of everyone involved.

Article originally featured in Forbes

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