Liz Smith is the Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer at Mobiquity, leading the company’s employee engagement, talent acquisition, and human resources initiatives. She has been working in HR for 25+ years, having worked for healthcare, financial services, and professional services industries.
Liz believes that employees are at the heart of every meaningful experience that Mobiquity creates for its clients. Liz especially loves working in professional services for its emphasis on creating and maintaining strong, talented teams.
In an exclusive interaction with People Matters, Liz discusses the crucial role of leadership in the current global circumstances, the leadership lessons she holds close, how can leaders accelerate the process of identifying opportunities in challenges and what the future of work looks like beyond digitization.
Here are excerpts of the interview.
What are some of the leadership lessons that have guided you in the current times of crisis?
Managers know that in times of crisis, they need to rally their teams, project deliberate calm and empathy, take decisive action and communicate effectively. It may be very tempting for leaders to centralize control - to put themselves at the center of all activity and decision making. The trick is to balance central control with delegating responsibility locally.
In times of crisis, leaders need to become more aware of how they are being perceived. The whole leadership team should be very disciplined in presenting a unified message to the organization. Leaders also need to maintain a balance in their message to employees. They should not be too negative nor should they be overly optimistic.
During times of crisis, there is a great deal of uncertainty. Employees look to their organization’s leaders to provide honest information and stability. One way to provide stability at such a time is through structure and regular communication. Bringing some structure - such as a regular cadence of employee meetings and published updates- into the lives of employees when so much has been turned on its head can be really helpful.
It is in the time of a crisis that we ask more of our employees. We need their commitment and energy during the crisis itself and then during the period of growth after the crisis.
When stressed, people often revert to types of behavior that are comfortable and familiar and sometimes that behavior can focus on preservation rather than collaboration. Leaders need to model the behavior they want their employees to follow.
Leaders need to show employees they value them. They need to remember that employees react more positively and will grow in a crisis when they feel valued and empowered.
As leaders, we need to remember our employees are people first. We need to recognize that there are a number of outside factors competing for their attention. Employees are worried about their own health, the safety of their families and the economy - along with all the regular stresses that are associated with their jobs. It is in times of crisis that employers have an even greater responsibility to safeguard employee engagement.
A majority of the leaders have their own unique leadership style. How challenging is it to break this set mould and remodel leadership behavior in times of such uncertainty?
Nothing about what we are experiencing today is ordinary. Since we are going through exceptional times, it only stands to reason that leaders need to adapt their own leadership style to fit this exceptional situation.
All leaders have preferences on how they communicate with employees, what they emphasize and how they spend their valuable time. With the global pandemic and all the challenges associated with it, leaders' personal preferences are secondary to what employees truly need from them.
When leaders view the situation in this light, it becomes a lot easier to adapt styles.
Right now employees have a strong need for direct and clear communication that is followed through with behavior that shows them that their leaders are reliable and trustworthy. Even though employees need the facts, those facts should be presented with as much kindness and compassion as possible. Employees are dealing with so many different types of stress right now-not just stress from their jobs.
Employees need their leaders to be honest and consistent in both their communication and behavior. Leaders need to meet regularly with employees, provide status updates and find ways to engage with employees. Leaders need to make time to care for their people, schedule one-on-one sessions, and create opportunities for employees to socialize. Leaders need to listen and pay careful attention to what employees are saying, what they are concerned about and what help they need. These meetings are not meant to be rushed. They are intended to slow down the chaos and bring people together.
It's times like these that leaders get to demonstrate their true executive presence by showing both composure and compassion. The most important thing for any leader to remember is that it is less about what they want to do and much more about what their employees need from them.
Many organizations are seeing opportunities emerging in addition to challenges, whether it be in addressing new client needs, improving your organization’s effectiveness or increasing employee engagement. What opportunities are you seeing?
The opportunity to be innovative is more important than it has ever been. Organizations, leaders, and employees are getting creative in how they approach new challenges and adapt to the changing and evolving landscape. It’s important that we allow space for these new ideas to come to life.
The bright spot in all of this is that some of these methods may carry over well after the crisis is over. We can learn from experience new ways of connecting, problem-solving, and boosting efficiency.
In our organization, we are committed to our stakeholders. That has not changed in the face of crisis. For our employee stakeholders, we remain committed to collaboration, engagement, and culture. We’ve moved our programs to digital platforms and have provided more opportunities for employees to share their talents with each other, socialize, and come together as a team. For our clients, we’re uncovering innovative ways for them to remain sustainable. Our teams have created accelerators to fast-track digital solutions for customers, such as curbside and contactless digital platforms.
Digital transformation and innovation are topics that we talk about regularly at Mobiquity. In the face of crisis, these concepts can help organizations overcome challenges, increase efficiency, and engage employees.
It takes a while before one can switch their perspective and look at a crisis as an opportunity. How can leaders guide their teams to accelerate this transition?
Once a crisis is in motion, turning it into an opportunity may require new ways of thinking and responding. As the crisis is unfolding, we need to make sure that we understand its nature and process. We have to ensure the right people are working on the problem and they have access to the right information. We might need to reframe the problem or look at the issues through a different lens.
People are more willing to offer needed creative solutions and new perspectives in an environment that does not penalize its people for taking risks. Sometimes only after everything else fails do the really creative solutions emerge.
Leadership based on understanding and not control - trusting that people know what to do - allows employees to challenge existing ways of doing things.
There have been debates surrounding the impact of remote working on productivity for a while, however, the outbreak of COVID-19 has forced the global sphere of work to switch to this working model. What can leaders do to foster a culture comprising both trust and high performance?
There are a number of things leaders can do to foster a culture of trust and high performance. To start with, leaders need to recognize that employees are people first and they are multidimensional. Leaders should emphasize professional development of their team members, give employees more autonomy to set more of their own work patterns, and provide input on what they will work on whenever possible.
Next, leaders should communicate frequently by providing thorough updates about the business. Leaders should show employees how they fit into the overall organization and how they add value. Leaders should routinely point out the impact of the work that employees are doing. Some employees are so focused on their assigned tasks that they may need help in recognizing their impact on the organization and its customers. Leaders should also recognize excellence, especially immediately after a job well done.
Leaders should intentionally build internal relationships and they should encourage employees to build a strong network within the organization too. Strong professional connections within the organization will deepen employee affiliation and engagement.
And perhaps what is most important is that leaders should let their employees know that they need their help to build the best organization possible.
The year 2019 had been all about tech adoption and digital transformation, with conversations surrounding what the future of work would look like. How do you see the future of work now?
Employers are doing more to support employees during the pandemic. Companies have been forced to consider employee well-being more than ever before. They are offering services and providing employee engagement activities, which employees like. Companies are learning how important employee engagement and motivation activities are and no matter where employees are working (at home or in an office), employers will most likely continue to provide a greater level of support for employees after COVID-19. One way employers are tackling this is with employee mobile apps, to help foster greater connection, collaboration, and productivity.
During this health crisis, there has been a great deal of focus on employees feeling isolated and overwhelmed. Benefit providers are promoting their mental health services and programs because of the new importance on mental health during the crisis. Perhaps after the crisis is over, there will be more widespread support for enhancing mental health coverage in employee benefit plans.
Going through tough times together can strengthen bonds between employees. Participating in more virtual events together - especially mixing with employees who you don’t regularly see or deal with - gives us all a greater appreciation of other team members. We get to know more about them as people and that always helps in strengthening our work relationships.
After having been home so much, managers and colleagues will have new respect for life’s demands and appreciation for all-things family. Work will become more flexible and employers will need to rethink their approach to the workplace. We will also have a new appreciation for the importance of the office, the critical nature of face-to-face interactions and the ways the workplaces must support employees.