The Generation of 2020

People starting new roles recently have faced unique challenges: How do they connect with colleagues? How do they get to know the quirks of their team or department? Can working online work as well – or better – than being on site, in person?

There’s untapped potential in connecting virtually. Paul Gentle walks us through how we can make the most of our experiences and build relationships that last.

How [do we] make up for the gaps in those all-important moments of human connection?”

There must be thousands of colleagues who’ve been appointed to posts in institutions new to them this year – and where they have yet to set foot in an office. What’s more, they have probably not met most of their colleagues in person yet.

In our work since March, we’ve met dozens of leaders who are in exactly this position. They range from Heads of Subject and professional services managers right up to Vice-Chancellors.

Let’s put ourselves in their shoes for a few minutes and imagine what the transition has been like, from a job in one university that used to be a familiar place (with all the sights, sounds and smells of its corridors and coffee bars)… to a new role in an almost entirely virtual world.

They will have needed to prioritise building relationships, in every direction, that make people feel respected while also getting things done. They will have found qualities of resilience they may not have realised they could tap into. They will have become outstanding communicators.

Only connect

But how to make up for the gaps in those all-important moments of human connection?

There was a wonderful story I remember, of a leader’s room for kindness and appreciation, that comes from the days of Hefce (the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which disappeared in 2018). Steve Egan*, the passionate and equally busy Steve Egan, who was Deputy Chief Executive, devised a unique way to express his gratitude to colleagues who had done a good job that he wanted to recognise. While time to speak directly to all the staff he might have liked to was at a premium, Steve created his own personal approach to making people feel special. At the end of the day, when most had gone home, he went to their keyboards and placed there a bar of Free Trade chocolate: the perfect embodiment of his personality and values.

This story makes me wonder what the equivalent of a gesture like this might be in a remote working environment. A miniature piece of creative writing, like a haiku? Or 5 minutes calling someone on their mobile to tell them just what you appreciate about what they’ve done and the difference it made? An opportunity for a team to share impactful actions driven by colleagues’ thoughtfulness or compassion?

Or maybe just a picture that tells a thousand words of care and empathy?

The art of the virtually possible

The conditions of 2020, poignant and agonising as they are, support and enable facilitative leadership.”

The leaders who are most effective at connecting with their colleagues are able to use Zoom or Teams, or even well-crafted texts and emails, to generate warmth and rapport. They know how to ask questions that open up possibilities rather than limit them. They set up discussions in break-out rooms that make people express delight and say ‘I didn’t know how much I needed that conversation until now!’

They’re also adept at bringing surprise into virtual spaces: mystery guests pop up in unpredictable moments, small teams work in real time on problem-solving tasks, colleagues make time to think or write in silence. All this is possible through video-conferencing tools.

The conditions of 2020, poignant and agonising as they are, support and enable facilitative leadership. They sharpen the focus on those who can design and guide people through meaningful experiences.

Far from being a Lost Generation, the new leaders of 2020 are demonstrating through their actions right now that engaging online doesn’t have to be a Marmite option. We can make it appealing for everyone, if we personalise. If we open ourselves up to experimentation. If we find ways of staying truly connected. 

We can make transitions work in the here and now; and in doing so, we create the cornerstones of the real, compassionate universities of the future.

*Steve himself transitioned in 2015 from Hefce into becoming Vice President (Implementation) at the University of Bath, and then again into retirement at the end of February this year.

By Paul Gentle

Paul is the Academic Director at Invisible Grail. A leadership expert, Paul has dedicated the last twelve years to creating and delivering leadership development programmes in higher education.

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