Bridging the great disconnect

Written by Ann Francke OBE Tuesday 03 November 2020
Remote working means many employees feel disconnected. Managers can’t tell when people are struggling. Time to talk the new leadership challenges with Siemens CFO & Executive Director Angela Noon CMgr CCMI
Ann Francke OBE, CMI's CEO

When you’re a global business operating in a variety of sectors across more than 60 sites in the UK alone, a one-size approach certainly doesn’t fit all.

Juggling the complexity of hybrid and remote working for thousands of employees while meeting the specific needs of staff in factories isn’t for the faint-hearted – and that’s just one small aspect of Angela Noon’s job.

For the most recent Better Managers Briefing, we tapped into Angela’s experience as chief financial officer and executive director of Siemens UK and the finance director of the Smart Infrastructure Operating Company. Angela shed light on some of the management challenges she faced at a time of unprecedented uncertainty, including having to tune into her empathy and adapt her communication to cover extremely difficult topics – such as colleagues passing away during the pandemic. “How do you make someone see you appreciate empathy?” she asks, then highlights the importance of clear and honest conversations. “It’s incredibly important to check in with your employees and communicate with them.

“I recently lost someone in my team,” she continues, “and I came in this morning to a letter from someone from a totally different team saying it was great that we sent a message about the passing of this colleague because it affected so many people.”


A new era in crisis management

The pandemic has required a totally new approach to leadership. The health and safety and employee wellbeing focus of the last few months meant that normal crisis management processes didn’t necessarily apply. From making sure factories were Covid-19 safe, to applying social distancing rules in a way that makes people feel that they're coming into a safe working environment, and changing working patterns or even deciding to close down some parts of the business, Angela admits the challenges were huge. “Leadership is actually quite different if you're not face to face with someone; you don't have that connection and you're living in this virtual environment,” she says.

For a diverse business such as Siemens, which straddles booming sectors as well as those feeling the pressure of Covid-19, there are myriad leadership challenges to navigate.

“In those sectors [such as healthcare] leadership is all about looking at new business models, exploring the opportunities and perhaps some policy changes,” Angela says, “It’s all about having a growth mindset.”

In businesses heavily impacted by sectors that are struggling such as automotive and aerospace, it’s about being a crisis manager; driving through problems, and leading through uncertainty.


Communication is key

Amid widespread employee speculation about massive restructuring and UK-wide unemployment, the ability for managers to keep their teams motivated in the face of obvious Covid-19 fatigue is no mean feat. Communication is key, Angela maintains. “Make sure that people understand every step. People are naturally looking to leaders to steer the company through those challenging times. That's a different type of skill set and it's a very different type of leadership,” Angela explains.

Being a great communicator, especially in a now-virtual environment, is a core trait of leaders of the future, she believes. Communication is vital because people are isolated and feeling disconnected from the organisation. “How do you appreciate if someone’s under the weather or not coping? I think everyone is struggling with that,” she adds.


Pandemic learning points

Despite initial reservations about the ability of some functions to operate remotely, widespread flexible working across the business has been a revelation, Angela admits, although it has prompted big questions about the company’s real estate footprint. “It would be remiss of me as a CFO if I wasn't looking into the financial situation of that, not to mention the huge possibilities of remote working in terms of motivation and flexibility,” she says.

Working at a distance from employees has driven home the need to devote more attention to staff wellbeing. If you're not talking about mental health right now you're not a good leader, Angela warns – but she accepts there is still a stigma associated with mental health. Openness about the subject must come from the top. Simply sending an e-mail and thinking about executing projects and targets and financials is not enough, she says: “I've got to take time to make sure that people are feeling okay.”

Some of Angela’s learnings have come from CMI: “I think that some of the things that CMI are publishing right now are just wonderful. It's very topical, and every week you seem to hit exactly the sorts of topics that leaders are asking themselves. In the morning when I'm having a coffee, the social media interaction prompts me to read something from CMI and I think, ‘oh, I hadn't thought of that yet’.”


Shaping work of the future

Government stimulus packages to try and get the economy back on its feet are to be welcomed but closer collaboration with business leaders is needed to move the country to an upward growth trajectory, Angela believes.

Huge question marks hang over the future skills requirements of business, bearing in mind widespread digitisation. Reskilling employees mid-career is a huge undertaking for business. “We can’t do it alone,” Angela warns.

Similarly, incentives and a commitment from the government on entry-level talent are needed, bearing in mind that today’s school-leavers don’t necessarily leave education with the skills – often softer skills – that are increasingly important in the workplace. “Never in our lifetime have we ever seen such a project of upskilling and reskilling. This is a huge turning point and I think it's a job of responsible business and government to get on with that,” Angela adds.


D&I as an integral part of the recovery

CMI’s new report, Moving the Dial on Race, highlights the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women and minorities, despite the shift towards more flexible working. Even though the pandemic is dominating board agendas, D&I should never ever be off the table, Angela warns.

“We've got a lot of cases in Siemens of mid to senior [female] managers who are juggling more than ever. We've got to ask ourselves, why is that?” Now, more than ever, we need to come up with flexible solutions to make sure these women are successful and that this pandemic is not pulling them back, she urges.


Recognising and rewarding remote talent

As remote working fast becomes the norm, measuring people on deliverables becomes increasingly important, Angela says. The metrics being used to gauge management success will have to change in line with the new skills needed to lead virtual teams.

“We're in the process of changing what we expect on some of these skills. How we approach teams and how we approach people development is going to have to be quite different in the future.” We're not going to stop rewarding great performance, but how we measure it will change, Angela says.

You can watch our conversation in full here. You can also visit CMI’s wellbeing and mental health hub, which has advice for those going through a difficult time and for managers who want to look out for their colleagues.

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