Leaders today have very complex and demanding priorities to fulfil at work, exacerbated by COVID-19, writes Ntombi Mhangwani, Associate Director for Accenture Interactive and Women’s Forum Lead for Accenture in Africa.

Not only must they ensure that they remain profitable, but they must also create a workplace that supports remote work, upholds trust, encourages continuous innovation, and ensures strong organisational performance. The pressures of the new normal have demanded a new approach to decision-making and the aptitude to move beyond the old ways of working.

An increasingly vocal range of stakeholders – employees, investors, business partners, consumers, policymakers and wider society – are pointing the way towards a more responsible course. They hold a unifying belief that the world’s most pressing problems can be addressed in ways that unleash new waves of growth that are more sustainable and more equitable. The new normal requires a new model of responsible leadership.

Responsible leadership is a performance premium

Individuals want to work for organisations with missions they believe in and this is where responsible leadership becomes important. Simply committing to values, sustainability and trust is however no longer enough. Businesses are required to deliver a product or service for profit, in a way where people are treated with dignity, respect and empathy. This includes doing the right thing and correcting mistakes, but also asking important questions on what is possible versus what is important to pursue. Leaders are required to turn intent into action at a scale great enough to make a visible difference for a broader set of stakeholders. Although this is no easy feat, the results are worth it.

In our study conducted in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, we found that companies that combine sustainability, trust and innovation far outperform their industry peers on operational and market metrics. Their estimated operating profits are 3.1% higher on average, and they deliver a higher annual total return to shareholders. These companies also appear to stand out by how they lead. Their top teams exhibit diverse and sometimes unfamiliar leadership qualities such as continuous learning backed by data, a stakeholder mindset anchored in compassion, a technology vision reinforced by creativity, generous humility, and listening to intuition.

How then must leadership evolve to pursue profitability and responsible leadership in tandem? It must develop a new set of leadership qualities. Identifying those qualities, and developing a model of responsible leadership is imperative for effective operating in the new normal.

The five new elements of responsible leadership

In our research, we identify five elements – qualities that leadership teams will need to navigate the decade ahead:

1. Stakeholder Inclusion. Safeguarding trust and positive impact for all by standing in the shoes of diverse stakeholders when making decisions, and fostering an inclusive environment where diverse individuals have a voice and feel they belong is key.

In the short term, business leaders will need to focus on preserving and protecting their current customer base by ensuring product and service delivery. At an enterprise level, they will need to accelerate their pivot to the digital business model, i.e. digitally enabled go-to-market models, leveraging new market receptivity. Over long term, we should expect to see new products, services and delivery models emerging due to the new norm of living and changing consumption behaviours.

2. Emotion & Intuition. Unlocking commitment and creativity by being truly human, showing compassion, humility and openness is imperative. Leaders need to show empathy and greater concern for employee well-being as well as encourage work-life balance.

3. Mission & Purpose. This requires the advancement of common goals by inspiring a shared vision of sustainable prosperity for the organisation and its stakeholders. Leaders will for instance set aggressive cost reduction target as the crisis hit both top-line and bottom-line. Moreover, overall financial management will be required to survive the upcoming recession and investment portfolios will be adjusted to create liquidity for COVID-19 relevant investments.

4. Technology & Innovation. Creating new organisational and societal value by innovating responsibly with emerging technology is important. Intelligent operations are a must for companies to differentiate and lead in a cost-effective manner. Further optimisation of existing operations and modernisation of technology by establishing new digital capabilities will be required.

5. Intellect & Insight. Leaders will need to find ever-improving paths to success by embracing continuous learning and knowledge exchange. Leaders that make the permanent shift to new ways of working will be better able to stave off business disruption and potential revenue loss, forge new levels of trust with their workforce, and position their businesses for renewed growth once the pandemic subsides.

The pandemic certainly forced most businesses to roll out digital workforce practices, but leaders should now focus on stabilising their operations across all dimensions and instilling trust as well as values as a wider organisational goal. There is opportunity now to update your company’s strategy, and processes as we transition out of the pandemic. Accomplishing a goal of this magnitude requires changes that are both large and small, and the combination of many small changes often creates the most significant impact.

It is not enough to have a mission without action, and this is where responsible leadership begins. At Accenture, we believe that leadership style shapes the future of an organisation and make conscious efforts to ensure that our leadership structure is one that is inclusive and diverse in all aspects.

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