Ask the expert: Leadership in a new age

In a rapidly changing world of work, strong leadership, exhibited through empathy and effective communication, can be a game-changer. Today’s leaders can find both personal and professional success, says talent agent and career advisor Steve Herz, by consistently communicating with three principles: authority, warmth and energy. Herz, author of “Don’t Take YES for an Answer” spoke with HRE about how HR and business leaders can confront the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic and come out stronger on the other side.

Author Steve Herz Photo: Jennifer Wagley

HREHow different should leadership look today than it did six months ago?

Herz: Leaders should seize upon the rawness that has been exposed through the pandemic. Working from home has humanized all of us, and it’s been an opportunity to connect with people in an authentic way. Leaders who expose their true selves in a constructively vulnerable way will garner more respect and true dedication. As I discuss in my book, increasing your warmth doesn’t make you weak–it can actually also increase your authority. Many of us have had no choice but to show our true selves (including our screaming kids, dogs, etc.) in a way that has made us rip off the veneer of perfection. The best leaders will understand the world has changed–likely permanently–and bring a greater sense of understanding and compassion to find common ground with their customers and colleagues.

Of course, great leaders should also get in front of the changes wrought by COVID-19, namely the idea of working remotely. Twitter was the first to recognize this and others have followed suit. This will give some a competitive advantage in the marketplace and help companies and attract and retain their best people. And that’s an underrated aspect of great leadership – the ability to attract and retain top talent.

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Herz: My principles of AWE–authority, warmth and energy–were always intended to be implemented across different mediums: in-person, phone and now Zoom. If you’re leading remotely and communicating via video, be overly aware of your voice and make sure you’re speaking without filler words. Try to make virtual eye contact with the people you’re talking to, and make sure you’re keeping people interested and alert by stopping more frequently and asking for feedback–even if it’s a quick thumbs up or down. If you’re on a video call with 10 or more people, it’s challenging to keep everyone engaged, especially since asking questions can be cumbersome. So, the more you involve others with that quick feedback, the more they will feel part of your process. Carefully listen and read their cues to see if you need to amp up your energy or stop and take a long pause. And, whenever possible, schedule as much one-on-one or small group time over video. During that time, ask personal questions and check in on your staff and let them know you care about them and are interested in their wellbeing and the personal challenges they’re facing. And if appropriate, share your own personal challenges–hopefully in a positive way. It’s important to be inspirational in this time when possible.

HRE: What role do HR leaders play in helping to develop these attributes in their managers and leaders?

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Herz: They can help foster a “don’t take yes” mentality so everyone not only welcomes feedback but demands it. I call this aggressive humility. It also helps if HR develops a tough love mentality with their employees, with the emphasis on love. A lot of people see HR as an extension of the general counsel/legal department just trying to protect the company. That is a defensive posture. Great companies play and think offense first. And when an HR department’s first and primary objective is to help retain and develop people, that’s a very collaborative mentality that serves to fuel the entire business. If people feel like you care about (love) them, then you can take a constructive approach. And when the CEO is open and eager for feedback with his reports, that mentality can take hold in an entire culture. It can create an incredibly positive, energizing mindset shift in a business. I’ve seen it happen; it’s a magical thing to observe.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].