Back to work: how to lead scared, tired and remote teams by ditching human capital principles

Last week a client told me that people desperately need support returning to work.

They usually use the summer to refresh, she said, but were instead preparing kids for school/university which will be entirely new and different experiences; deciding to home-school or not; parents of children with special needs are especially struggling; there’s a constant anxiety about job losses or loss of colleagues; young people starting careers need help, she said. The list is endless.

That stress is exacerbated when people at work are in distributed teams where there is little opportunity to seek or find support. Leaders have to lead across back to back virtual meetings at a time of constant anxiety.

Journalist Fintan O’Toole captures this fear accurately: “Danger” he writes, “has made us more awake to the world around us than we have needed to be for generations”.

My client says that “We all need to make sure to be kind and generous as much as we can to everyone else and also to ourselves. It’s about micro-goals right now”, she added.

Hers is good advice, especially the part about being kind to yourself. Do you know how?

The overriding concern of leaders now is how to get done what needs to get done over the next three or four months, which will be “make or break”, for many.

I propose three steps:

Step 1: Reflect

Get everyone together as soon as possible and announce to them a three-stage process.

The first step is an opporutnity to reflect on what has happened; what the pandemic has meant for them as individuals in their private lives during lockdown, as members of society and as members of an organisation/function. Listen to their stories. Tell your own, allowing your vulnerability to show too. Don’t rush it.

In the coming weeks, there will be a pent up demand to share lockdown experiences, fears and hopes. You will not get this opportunity to regroup again. Everyone should get a chance to speak and don’t move on to the next step until everyone has done so.

If you can’t engage a facilitator, facilitate it yourself.

Step 2: Reframe

Next, lead a discussion on how your pre-COVID purpose, strategy and behaviour (PSB as I call it) should change. It would be odd if it shouldn’t.

Is your purpose still to maximise shareholder returns? What about pandemic related environment, society and governance (ESG) issues? Did you take government bailouts? Do you not owe more to society now? How has the virus affected your customers, suppliers and employees? How have their needs changed?

Having reframed your purpose, you must change your strategy to achieve that purpose. How will you express that new strategy? Make sure you make strategy a shared decision if you want to retain the discretionary effort of your teams. No amount of money, or threat of losing it, can buy discretionary effort. Only strong leaders attract it. While your organisation may survive for a while with threats of job losses it won’t sustain because you won’t get the creativity and innovation you absolutely need to get through the pandemic.

Step 3: Relaunch

Finally agree small behaviour change contracts with each other focused on achieving short-term “micro-goals”, as my client calls them, in the service of implementing your new shared strategy to achieve your reframed shared purpose.

By behaviour contracts, I mean explicit soft deals with each other in terms of day-to-day process, making sure that you legislate for the breach of those soft contracts since people are human and will make mistakes. You must agree in advance how mistakes can be called out without fear.

To take these three steps, you need to ditch, once and for all, outdated and wholly useless management principles:

Human capital: it doesn’t exist, never did. If it did accountants would have found a way to put it on balance sheets. Try as they might they haven’t succeeded because it’s impossible to own people except in slavery. And that’s illegal. If you approach the pandemic using human capital asset management principles you will fail because you will lose the respect of people at a time when you need that respect most


Human Resources Directors: while human resources technically exist, no one sees themselves as a human resource, least of all you. If anything, you are the HR Director. This is easy to address. Simply, change your HRD’s title to Chief of Staff and ask them to help you lead instead of abrogating your responsibility for people in your organisation to them


Top-down decisions: if you don’t ditch command and control decision-making processes your risks during the pandemic will multiply, and you will miss opportunities because you won’t hear what you need to hear especially if you make poor decisions which will mark you out, forever, as a bad COVID leader. Make sure you appoint a Devil’s Advocate for all key decisions. Also ensure that your General Counsel reports to the Board, not to you. This will protect you and your organisation and may even save you from prison.

In summary, a good COVID CEO will:

⁃ create an environment in which people thrive as individuals with their unique coping mechanisms
⁃ ensure the longterm survival and growth of their organisation or function
⁃ honour all stakeholders: shareholders, the environment, & society

They will also be kind to themselves and others.

What more can they do?

Ciarán Fenton

One thought on “Back to work: how to lead scared, tired and remote teams by ditching human capital principles

  1. Really well written. Bravo!

    Simon Pollock 80 Prince of Wales Mansions, Prince of Wales Drive, London SW11 4BJ

    +44 7768 202 601

    >

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