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Finding the Right Leaders for the COVID-19 Pandemic Environment

The global pandemic presents unique leadership challenges that can be addressed by understanding the fit between leaders and their environments.

In my recent blog post just a few weeks ago, I mentioned the historically low unemployment rates in the United States. How things have changed since then! Because of the steps taken to address the COVID-19 pandemic, most organizations have had to turn on a dime to address the new reality of remote working, economic insecurity, and new ways of doing business. To succeed in this new work environment, organizational leaders need to be prepared to handle the challenges that may require different work styles.

SHL research has demonstrated that the leader attributes that best predict performance depend on the work context. Most leaders have particular strengths and weaknesses that need to be matched to the context to maximize their potential for success. Few leaders are strong in all areas – Therefore, we identified 27 contextual challenges that distinguish between different types of leaders and the attributes that matter most for success.

For example, working in an organization that encourages risk-taking requires different traits than working in an organization that is very risk-averse. Each leader’s work environment consists of a combination of challenges that define the work context. Given the unique contextual challenges that define a leadership role, our solution uses an algorithm that computes a predicted performance score based on a weighted combination of the attributes that are most predictive of performance for that configuration of challenges.

Working in an organization that encourages risk-taking requires different traits than working in an organization that is very risk-averse.

For the current work environment, we selected what are likely the most relevant challenges for most leadership roles from our SHL Talent Management library, and identified these top 6 contextual challenges for leaders in this pandemic environment:

#1—Lead Geographically Dispersed Teams

With so many employees working remotely, many leaders find themselves needing to lead team members that are dispersed across multiple locations to function together as a team.

#2—Deliver Under High Uncertainty and Ambiguity

The unpredictability of our current situation forces leaders to navigate an environment that is characterized by a high degree of uncertainty and in which roles and work may not be clearly defined.

#3—Ensure Safety and Security of Persons or Operations

This challenge has typically been limited to certain industries, but the coronavirus has forced most leaders to lead in an environment in which the safety of employees is at risk.

#4—Design and Drive New Strategies

The pandemic has forced many businesses to do things differently to survive, adapt to new circumstances, or take advantage of new opportunities. This increases the importance of leaders being able to conceive of new strategies and align a team or organization to implement them.

#5—Deliver Rapidly Changing Products, Services, and Processes

Leading a team to deliver in a situation in which products, services, or processes change rapidly has become very important for many businesses. Automobile manufacturers are manufacturing ventilators. Alcohol distilleries are making hand sanitizer. Eat-in restaurants have started delivering or providing curbside service. Other organizations may be rushing new products or services to market that are particularly important at this time.

#6—Operate with High Resource Constraints

Many leaders are probably finding themselves in a situation in which the resources available are more limited than the work typically requires. Revenue is lower than what was budgeted, workers have been laid off, or the supply chain has been disrupted, forcing leaders to drive results without the resources they usually have.

The pandemic has forced many businesses to do things differently, increasing the importance of leaders being able to conceive of new strategies.

Every organization is unique and might find some challenges less relevant and other challenges more relevant, but these challenges are probably the most common in the pandemic environment. For this particular combination of challenges, the following leader attributes (as measured by SHL’s Occupational Personality Questionnaire) were found to best predict successful performance:

  • Caring, sympathetic, and considerate toward others
  • Focuses on getting things finished
  • Understands people and why they behave in certain ways
  • Capable of persuading others to a point of view
  • Involves others in decision making.
  • Trusts people
  • Willing to work around standard procedures to get results when necessary
  • Openly expresses feelings and emotions

The global pandemic has vividly demonstrated how quickly and dramatically a leader’s work context can change. For many, what we have learned may lead to an entirely new way of doing business even after this crisis is over. The time is now to make sure your leaders are prepared to face the challenges of the present and the future.

If you’re interested in learning how SHL can help to develop your leaders, please contact us.

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Jeff Johnson

Dr. Jeff Johnson is a Principal Research Scientist at SHL. His current responsibilities on the Research and Development team focus on designing and developing innovative products and solutions that support employee selection and development, particularly with respect to the identification and placement of current and future leaders. His research demonstrating the impact of context on diversity and the prediction of leader performance led to the development of SHL’s Leader Edge selection and development tool and was awarded the M. Scott Myers Award for Applied Research in the Workplace by the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology in 2018.

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