Leaders, it’s time for a new conversation

By Christopher Fussell & Barry Sanders

We’ve all spent two years wrestling to find the perfect balance between in-office, home-office, flex-days, all-remote days…the list goes on. It’s time to stop having winding-discussions around hybrid work. It’s just “work.” The statistics and trends make it clear that the workforce has entered a new chapter and it’s time to move past the cobbled-together solutions hastily conceived when the world was thrust into lockdown. We must focus instead on how to win in the world as it is – driven by unpredictable disruptions and a workforce that is constantly reimagining itself.

But every challenge brings opportunity, and anytime things look unpredictable, you’re wise to bet on the strongest team. Great teams adapt with cohesion. Great teams aren’t bound solely by the written rules. Great teams are grounded in trust-based relationships. So the real question we should be asking ourselves isn’t about in-office versus remote schedule, but how do we maintain and deepen your team’s connectedness despite the complexity around us?

Last January, we were talking about establishing the “new normal” and exploring how to optimize hybrid workforces so that organizations could reach their goals while still prioritizing employee safety. For many – this was seen as a temporary solution until lockdown measures and vaccine rollout programs could finally bring an end to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the pandemic continues to morph, and new variants present challenges in waves, we must accept the reality that there is nothing temporary about how we’re all currently working. The only certainty is that. 2022 must therefore be the year where we begin the hard work of overhauling our provisional solutions into something truly sustainable.

At McChrystal Group we’re changing the conversation – internally and with our clients – away from quick fixes and towards sustainable solutions in a time of continued uncertainty. We challenge you to do the same, starting with four key areas:

Keep Your Employees Engaged and Emotionally Connected

The greatest challenge to organizations in 2022, perhaps beyond, will be keeping your employees tuned in and engaged. While it’s important for leaders to empower their people by taking a step back and trusting them to do good work (within well-defined guardrails, of course) – that doesn’t mean disconnecting. The key is for leaders to ensure their colleagues feel an emotional tie to the organization’s vision, the team, and to one another. By doing so, your teammates will want to act and feel ownership of the success and outcomes of the organization. Look critically at the systems you’ve employed for the past two years, and examine where the changes have helped drive engagement, and where they are falling short. Organizations with a workforce that is engaged and invested in the success of the mission – and understand their own contributions to it – will always come out ahead in times of uncertainty.

McChrystal Group, as an example, shifted our Operating Rhythm (our organizational cadence) to a seven-day cycle in the first days of the pandemic. We’ve since adjusted that to a five-day cycle, but we thoughtfully plan, and revisit, our operating rhythm so that an entire year comes into view with the intention of building a team-culture, and driving our collective understanding of the business, so that we can win in a highly unpredictable market. In short, we conduct a remote, 30-minute standup Monday through Thursday that is open to the whole firm; do a deep senior-partner-led review on Fridays, also remote; a monthly business review led by our CFO, a 36-hour all-hands session (ideally in person) twice per year to drive team cohesion and review our key strategic initiatives; and a thrice-annual McChrystal Group Leadership Venture, where a small group of cross-functional teammates spends 2-3 days together in non-standard, and non-business environments, with the sole intent of deepening our trust-based relationships.

Moving forward, think deeply about your annual cadence, or Operating Rhythm, and ensure it’s serving your intent. If it looks the same as it did in 2019, you’re likely not adapting to the new realities around us, and we recommend you give it a thoughtful review. Whether fully remote, or back in the office, an Operating Rhythm aligned to your strategy is a cornerstone of building a connected and adaptable team.

Build Resilient Networks

A key determinant of organizational success is the resiliency of not only their individuals but also the connections between teammates. Leaders might intuitively understand their immediate network (who they can trust for a special project, who to turn to for mentorship or advice) but high levels of uncertainty require faster feedback and innovation that cannot come from a tightly knit leadership team separated from the rest of the organization.

Leaders must leverage and lead a much larger network, identifying those “go-to” employees with a disproportionate influence on the organization who can act as force multipliers. McChrystal Group refers to these “go-to” employees as “network influencers,” whose informal leadership can be used to better distribute communications and spearhead new initiatives. If you’re struggling to find those network influencers, our organizational network analysis can help. Armed with a detailed snapshot of what your network looks like – and how your teams are actually operating – you can make targeted changes to make your networks more resilient and better prepared for when that next crisis inevitably hits.

Ask Powerful Questions

“How are you doing?” isn’t necessarily the worst question to ask your teammates, but at this point in the pandemic, many of us want to respond with, where do you want to start? Instead, challenge yourself to ask questions that get to the heart of the challenge. A favorite of ours in one-on-one conversations is some version of, “what do you need from your leadership to feel more connected to this team?” It opens the door for any range of input, from new IT solutions to frequency of in-person connection, or anything in between. Adaptable teams understand one another, and as a leader, you should challenge yourself daily to deepen your understanding of your teammates.

At McChrystal Group, one of our most important tools over the past two years has been our Red Team solutions. Red Teaming exercises are built to make people uncomfortable by forcing participants to acknowledge their assumptions, challenge their preconceptions, and face the possibility of failure. But teams that ask themselves “how will this strategy fail?” learn how their teammates think, uncover collective blind spots, and deepen their sense of team-orientation. This type of thinking and behavior is crucial in identifying contingencies that can be put in place to avoid unacceptable failures. Only by asking the hard questions can we successfully outpace the ever-changing COVID-19 challenges in our workplace, and only trust-based teams have the ability to ask those questions of one another’s thinking and planning.

Be Intentional

Every new day of the pandemic brings its own challenges. As you react, be intentional about the changes you implement. Consider which events should be in-person (with required safety measures) and which can remain virtual. Think long and hard about how your team needs to interact to be successful but acknowledge that as conditions continue to change, so must you. The world is likely years away from a stable “new normal,” so bring your own stability to the table - with carefully thought-out, intentional decisions with your team.

At McChrystal Group, we recently held our quarterly All Hands in person for the first time in two years. Thorough risk assessments, detailed planning, and provisions were put in place to ensure a safe environment that would positively impact the entire team.

Over the next eight weeks, we will be sharing tips, Weekly Whiteboards, case studies, webinars, podcast episodes, and an actionable playbook to help leaders successfully bid farewell to short-term solutions and focus on winning. View our resources here and contact us to identify how we can partner with your organization to outpace your competition, environment, and next challenge.

Chris Fussell is the President of McChrystal Group. Chris has focused on bringing his Special Operations experience and expertise in cross-functional collaboration, knowledge sharing, and decision making with large corporations facing similar challenges. He joined McChrystal Group as a Partner in 2012.

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Barry Sanders

Chief Operating Officer

Barry Sanders is the Chief Operating Officer at McChrystal Group, where he provides oversight for all client engagements to maintain consistent high quality in service delivery. Barry joined the firm in 2015 after nearly three decades of successful executive and general management experience in market-leading multinational corporations.

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