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“There Is No Playbook For This”: Vantage’s Founding Partner Reflects on How 2020 Changed Leadership

Vantage Founding Partner Dr. Carl Robinson has spent the last 37 years assisting executives in preparing for high-stakes transitions and navigating career-defining moments – and 2020 was, for many, the ultimate challenge. As a clinical psychologist with a deep understanding of the intersection between organizational and personal dynamics, Carl has unique insight into the toll this last year has taken on leaders. We (virtually) sat down to talk about the impact of 2020 on the clients he works with, including whether authenticity in leadership is overrated, why companies are abandoning fundamental business principles in favor of personal ones, the consequences of virtual work, and more.

You’ve spent the better part of your career coaching executives. How has your work this last year differed from the turmoil you’ve helped clients navigate in the past?

The idea of turmoil, of course, goes back forever and ever. It seems that every time is turbulent. However, to compare the past with this recent period would miss the mark dramatically. I imagine if you were coaching executives during World War II, it might feel similar. But looking across the nearly four decades I’ve been consulting – I have never seen anything like this.

Beyond the excruciating health toll of the pandemic and the devastating impact this has had on the economy, many of the executives we work with have been far more affected by this last year than one might imagine. In some cases, their organizations are flourishing, and in other cases they have been hobbled, but almost all have been thrown off-balance. As an example, one of the most fundamental tools business leaders rely on is the ability to plan, but if you face a year when planning is almost ludicrous, well, this can disrupt the equilibrium of even the most seasoned of leaders. Until more recently, you simply couldn’t predict the future with any great confidence.

In addition, given all the stakeholders most executives are responsible for, as well as the health and well-being of their family and friends, it’s not difficult to imagine the extraordinary pressure they’re facing. And very little in their prior experience provides them with much guidance – there is no playbook for this. Making things worse, most don’t have many outlets to vent or to talk about their fears and concerns – it’s lonely at the top. And many feel the need to demonstrate some level of confidence, which is way easier said than done in this environment.

So how do leaders balance the need to show confidence while adhering to the other values we’ve identified for turbulent times: transparency, vulnerability, authenticity?

Values, of course, are not black-and-white, and not entirely independent. Authenticity is a big word these days in leadership, but it’s a little overrated, in my opinion. One of my favorite stories is an executive I worked with saying to her colleagues, “You don’t want to see my authentic self; you wouldn’t like it!” Everybody is entitled to wear a certain veneer as they work…if you were as authentic or transparent with people as you could be, and you shared some of the stress and exhaustion you were feeling as a business leader, it might not translate well.

As the pandemic continued, we saw more and more advice about how to maximize the cohesion and effectiveness of virtual teams. How are you seeing this new version of work play out?

Well, this represents one more big challenge to leadership. Here’s an angle I had not anticipated: many executives in our client organizations have been forced to work remotely – often against their will. But quite a few have employees, essential employees, who have been required to stay on the job: in factories, data centers, etc. Leaders working for organizations with multiple locations – plants, facilities, offices scattered about the country – can’t make the road trips to see the people who work for them. This is both stressful and guilt-inducing. Most executives draw energy from face-to-face interactions and feel an obligation to be with their troops. To take that out of play removes a source of their lifeblood.

A second challenge ties to the limitations of virtual interaction. To think that Zoom is a substitute for face-to-face is ridiculous. You have many companies beginning to imagine a permanent workforce of virtual employees. This has my clients both eager to capture the potential efficiencies of this and very anxious about the consequences. What’s missing with virtual work? Well, a lot. It tends to be highly transactional, but is rarely inspirational – and it’s always scheduled, never spontaneous. Virtual meetings are scheduled into calendars for blocks of time, and much of the unscheduled interaction is gone. People say, “Well, just pick up the phone and call somebody.” But that’s different than crossing paths with someone in the hallway, or sitting down for a cup of coffee or an impromptu meeting. An important means of asserting leadership has simply been eliminated.

Is this taking a toll?

I’ve had a number of executives say their thinking is becoming “loose” and less disciplined; they’re not as strategic as they used to be, nor as proactive. They don’t get to be creative with their colleagues the way they used to; they don’t have as much time to whiteboard ideas or simply think out loud with their peers. There’s a whole set of interactions that were highly productive, that are now missing. Those touchpoints haven’t been replaced. Beyond this, there’s growing evidence that virtual meetings are just plain exhausting. Staring at your computer screen all day long – everybody is growing tired of this. And we have not yet developed good coping mechanisms for these shifts. I can see a time in the future where many leaders will begin to ask their employees to return to the office for the above reasons, only to face real resistance, as these employees have adjusted to the “new normal” – and they’re happier with it.

How do you begin to make up for all this loss?

One suggestion is that they reach out to their peers to discuss ways of managing this. For example, we had a business president who was eager to conduct an off-site strategy session, but afraid that a virtual meeting would wear everybody down. One of his counterparts suggested the idea of “2-2-2” – meaning two hours virtual, two hours off, and two hours back in a virtual meeting. It worked like a charm. There’s a lot of learning taking place out there.

Another suggestion is to identify what has been taken away, and replace it. Structure comes to mind. For most working people, the structure of commuting, of certain routines in the course of the day, including things as simple as a lunch break or the walk back to the train…these patterns are important psychologically. In the face of other uncertainties, they keep you on track, and they define necessary boundaries. And we miss them. The reference many have made to the movie Groundhog Day really captures something. People have lost track of days, of time, of work – everything is a blur. In order to cope, we need to identify new sources of structure. And of course, different people need to do this in different ways.

One of my colleagues suggested I begin to journal on a regular basis, to bring more discipline to my virtual work life. Can you imagine me journaling?! It’s not going to happen. However, to my wife’s dismay, I’ve begun to cook dinner every other night. Before the pandemic, I didn’t know how to turn our oven on. But now I actually cook, and I look forward to it. It brings closure to my day, and it’s surprisingly satisfying. Each of us needs to find their own rituals and guardrail to help establish boundaries, and to keep one day from bleeding into the next. As we try to help people in our work, we’ve quickly learned that prescribing solutions is a bad idea. You have to help them find their tools. Everyone has to find their own peace and balance with this, and if we can help them do that through executive coaching, it can be very rewarding.

One final question: can you talk a little bit about how the social movements and the political climate of the last year or so have played into your work?

With exceptions – always with exceptions – it is Business 101 that companies don’t take political sides on issues. The late economist Theodore Levitt said, “The purpose of a business is to get and keep a customer.” And if you start alienating customers with your political views, you are sabotaging this basic principle. So most companies don’t tend to take controversial stands, and those that do are making certain bets on how their marketplace will respond. Yet, business leaders often have strong views on today’s issues, just like everybody else. So there’s a natural tension here that often surfaces in executive coaching.

The last year or so has raised this to a boiling point. The Black Lives Matter movement follows in the steps of the MeToo movement: two social phenomena that are related, but quite different in their impact. And yet each presents both challenge and opportunity for today’s executives. Leaders have had to assess whether they want to pay lip service to this or take meaningful action. Most I work with have taken the latter to heart. These leaders have chosen to take stands for reasons that generally are not market-driven. They’ve been personally affected by what’s going on in the world around them, and for many, a line has been crossed. In addition, they are feeling the pressure from their employees, in some cases shareholders, and certainly a number of their customers, to get out in front of these issues.

Then you have the more recent events at The Capitol, and a truly phenomenal number of prominent business people took a side against the “insurrection” and the instability it represented. This is unprecedented in my 37 years. I’ve never seen businesses so quickly line up around an issue like that. You’d have to go back to, as far as I can recall, the Vietnam War – which precedes my professional life. In my coaching, I’m seeing leaders question their comfort zones, and wrestle with whether they should assert a point of view, internally, to their organization, or even more profoundly, to the public at large? Real work has been done to ratify and recommit to corporate values and core operating principles. Some of this has alienated their colleagues and cost them business – they faced backlash. This level of leadership takes courage, yet by January 2021, we saw a degree of critical mass I simply didn’t expect.

The point of this is that leaders always cast long shadows, and you can’t go through the events we’ve witnessed and not affect the leaders we support. These were moments that called for leadership, and many, fortunately, stepped up. The easiest path for most of us is to do nothing and hope it blows over. I think that’s a real trap. The defaulting position of a leader facing controversy is to do nothing, because it seems safe, but we know that’s not leadership. So what I’ve seen in this current chapter of my professional life is some remarkable leadership, brought to the forefront by the difficulties we’ve been facing. And quite honestly, it has been a privilege to be on this journey with them.

 

What are the biggest lessons you learned from 2020 – and which do you continue to navigate today? Where have you witnessed (or demonstrated) exemplary leadership? Share with us in the comments below!

About Carl Robinson

Carl has been with Vantage for 35 years and served as Managing Partner from 1999 to 2015. Licensed as a Clinical Psychologist in 1985, Carl has spent the better part of his career assisting a broad range of businesses in the management of change and developing effective leadership strategies. Recently, he has focused on accelerating the development of emerging executives, particularly aspiring CEOs and other key talent. He has considerable experience working with both privately-held firms and public corporations across diverse fields, including manufacturing, financial institutions, and health care. He also heads the firm’s family business practice. Carl completed his B.A., Magna Cum Laude, at the University of Colorado in 1975, and received both his M.A. and Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Loyola University in Chicago in 1980 and 1982, respectively. He has authored a number of articles and has frequently been interviewed by various business publications, including The Wall Street Journal.

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