In The Era Of "The Great Resignation," Entrepreneurs And Business Leaders Need To Add Soft Skills To Their Arsenal

Today, employees feel differently about their work, and managers need to respond to this shift. This new reality demands a new leadership style.

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When I asked five business leaders in the Middle East to name an essential quality that they believed was necessary to steer their enterprises to success in "the new normal," they listed emotional intelligence, decency, active listening, delegation, and empathy. It seems that the spotlight is now on soft skills.

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The coronavirus pandemic disrupted businesses at every level, and as a result, impacted the way they were run as well- many in a negative manner. No one set out to be a bad boss. But then, no amount of experience or b-school training could have prepared us for the leadership challenges that tagged along with the COVID-19 crisis. Today, employees feel differently about their work, and managers need to respond to this shift. This new reality demands a new leadership style.

Here in the Middle East, entrepreneurs are realizing the value of leading with compassion at their respective enterprises. Christian Eid is the founder and CEO of Ducklife, a boutique advisory that helps businesses to strategize, launch, and grow. He also recently launched No Bueno, a job platform that matches recruiters and job seekers based on factors like values, personality, technical skills, and soft skills.

Now, Eid is someone whose views on leadership have evolved over time- as he puts it: "For several years, I was obsessed with conventional traits like productivity, discipline, and motivation. Skills like communication, self-awareness, and being emotionally available were not in my mix originally." But after 15 years on the field, Eid now feels emotional intelligence is the most important attribute of a leader. "The ability to understand people is absolutely the biggest skill that a leader must possess today," he declares. "It goes beyond setting a direction and vision, articulating expectations, and motivating people."

Christian Eid, founder and CEO, Ducklife. Source: Ducklife

According to Harvard Business Review's 2016 empathy index, the top 10 companies with an empathetic culture in 2015 increased in value more than twice as much as the bottom 10, and they also generated 50% more earnings- this indicates a correlation between departments with higher empathy and those with high performers. More recently, consulting firm EY conducted a survey of over 1,000 Americans in 2021, of whom 54% decided to leave their jobs because they believed their employers weren't empathetic to their struggles at work. The COVID-19 crisis has seen the term "decency" gain more popularity in leadership vocabulary.

A simple trait that perhaps isn't talked about enough, decency can be described as a genuine desire to do right and leave no one behind. The term "decency quotient" (DQ) was coined in 2017 by Mastercard Executive Chairman Ajay Banga, who said it is what inspires people to believe that you have their back; it lets them know they can bring their hearts and minds to all they do. Leaders with DQ understand that their decisions aren't only about making a business profitable, but they can also highly influence an individual's life.

Sara Maria Boueri is the Senior HR Director at Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA). Over the last two years, Boueri claims that RAKTDA has been able to transform its work culture at zero cost, with the entity also recognized for the same in 2021 by Great Place to Work Middle East. According to Boueri, the importance of decency in leadership cannot be emphasized enough. "Empathy and emotional intelligence are hot topics in leadership, but decency goes one step further," she explains. "Decency means ensuring that everyone at the workplace feels valued. Empathy doesn't always come naturally, and it shouldn't be pushed, because people can feel the inauthenticity. Decency, however, is easier to relate to. It's about doing the kind thing whenever we can, and supporting employees even if we cannot necessarily empathize with their situation. There are times when we didn't hire solely based on talent despite the candidate's experience and qualifications, because we felt they didn't share our common values. One way we assess how they would fit into our culture is by asking them about the last time they did something kind, and what they did. We're not expecting huge gestures, but if they can't answer it with ease, that's a red flag for us. On top of being qualified to do the job, we are looking for an ability to think beyond ourselves about the greater community."

Sara Maria Boueri, Senior HR Director, RAKTDA. Source: RAKTDA

For business leaders wanting to plug gaps that may exist in the organizations, Boueri believes the best way for them to do this is by approaching their employees directly to simply reveal these issues to them. "As entrepreneurs and employers, we're scared to ask employees what's bothering them- we're terrified they want something monetary that we can't provide," Boueri says. "But based on experience, the top five things employees want us to change in the short term do not involve money. Ask your employees what you're doing wrong, and how you can improve."

One of the biggest factors currently driving changes at the workplace is that employees want to be happy. Think about it: we spend a seven to nine hours a day at work, even if it is remote. As such, if an organization doesn't maintain a culture of keeping its people happy, they will walk away. And that should be enough incentive for businesses to adopt an operating model that considers human needs along with business objectives. Great Place to Work is a global authority on workplace culture. They survey employees at an organization by collecting information anonymously, and then evaluating how they perceive their employer in terms of trust, leadership effectiveness, ability to maximize human potential, and organizational values. The employer gets certified based on how much it scores, and based on such results, Great Place to Work compiles a list of the best workplaces in several categories and geographies.

Ibrahim Mougharbel, Managing Director, Great Place to Work Middle East, reveals that his entity's interactions with organizations in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, and Qatar has tripled since May 2020- a sign that workplaces in the region are showing a greater understanding of the importance of company culture. "Multinationals and government entities are investing heavily in the happiness of their employees, and the trend is trickling down to SMEs and private enterprises in the region," Mougharbel says. "I see a drastic change in their intent– businesses are adding employee satisfaction to their key performance indicators. They are looking beyond getting certified and listed in the survey. Leaders work with us to understand how to build a better work culture and experience for their people." Such changes are in stark contrast to the manner in which businesses in the region have been known to use the element of fear to tighten the grip around their employees at their respective enterprises. "It worked for employers before the pandemic, but this never was a sustainable model," Mougharbel notes. "Employees who feel intimidated have no space for creativity or innovation. Firstly, every industry is hiring in the region, and employees know they have better options. Secondly, the recent visa reforms have opened golden visa, five-year visa, and green visa, for instance, enable people to adopt new working models and sponsor their families, removing the fear factor. It is unfortunate that it took a pandemic for the corporate world to open its eyes, but the business environment is changing for the better."

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Ibrahim Mougharbel, Managing Director, Great Place to Work Middle East. Source: Great Place to Work Middle East

Navigating "the new normal" has also resulted in business leaders having to learn and adopt new behaviors for themselves, one of which is the art of delegation. This is a skillset that's especially important for entrepreneurs to grasp, because, well, they often simply want to be a part of daily operations. After all, it is a business that they created, and they love being the go-to person for everything. Why is it necessary to make the business self-sufficient without them? Eid has the answer to that query. "If you are always at the front of your business, you are failing," he declares. "It struck me when my mentor told me that I'm not building value if the business always needs my presence. We may have the right people in our team, but if we're constantly required to be at the helm, we haven't motivated them enough or given them the confidence to make decisions without us. Leading should be intermittent- you should be available to take a decision when they need you. However, it is easy to lose perspective and cripple them."

In other words, the aim should be to create a system that can run itself- else, you may be the one standing between your business and its growth. This is something that Michele Johnson can testify to- she is a UAE-based entrepreneur who worked as the Regional HR Director for the Middle East and Africa at Johnson Controls before she co-founded homegrown Dubai eatery, Pitfire Pizza, with her husband. "As a manager, one of the most important leadership skills is the ability to delegate, and the ability to know what to delegate," Johnson says. "Too often, people are put into a position with the title of manager, without knowing what it takes to be a manager." Johnson remembers having to deal with such truths when Pitfire Pizza was gearing up for expansion just about two years ago. "I knew that the skills and experience that helped us get this far weren't enough to take us forward," Johnson recalls. "We brought in consultants to help scale up and professionalize our business, and in the process, we restructured the team to support our growth. It is crucial for entrepreneurs to lead at the initial stage of a business, because it's our job to convince people to join something that isn't established yet. But as your business grows, you ask yourself if you're the best person to scale it. Surround yourself with strong and successful people who balance out the qualities that you don't have."

Johnson's sentiments on this topic are backed by Anisha Oberoi, founder and CEO of Secret Skin, a UAE-based startup that provides ethically sourced sustainable beauty and skincare brands from around the world. "Recently, we decided to onboard a senior manager to elevate existing capabilities, one who knows certain aspects of the market better," Oberoi reveals. "We expect to have some feathers ruffled, and current efforts redirected. A part of leadership is the ability to feel secure, empower, and enable managers to run things the way they see fit, without feeling territorial or being restrictive."

Michele Johnson, co-founder, Pitfire Pizza. Source: Pitfire Pizza

According to Oberoi, the provision for organizations to have conversations about mistakes is equally important, which also means providing a safe space for teams to communicate. "The region is a melting pot of cultures- understanding and respecting cultural nuances and sensitivities is key in communication," she says. "Everyone at the organization should have the confidence to approach you without fear, and say, "This isn't working; let's shift direction.' We recalibrate, and that's how an engaged team works. Most of us have it etched in our minds that mistakes are a big no-no. But a fear of vulnerability and looking incompetent holds us back, and unless we normalize making mistakes, nobody learns. And this applies to business leaders as well- people in such positions should accept the eventuality that they may make wrong decisions as they govern their enterprises. "But the best leader also makes a high number of good decisions," Eid adds. "You can do that only when you are aware of your organization. Listen to inputs that come from employees, customer feedback, operations team, reports, and technology," acknowledges Eid.

And if business leaders want to be more confident about making mistakes, Boueri suggests that they make it a point to be clear about the state of their enterprise's finances. "It is the most important skill anyone needs to know, regardless of their position: how the money comes in, and how the money goes out," she explains. "Once you understand finance, you know where you can take risks, how much at leverage you have, and what your strategy should be. We challenged this mentality at RAKTDA and worked towards creating a culture where it's okay for both employees and leaders to make mistakes- because it means they are learning. We let our leaders and employees know that we didn't expect perfection from anyone, and with that mindset, we have created a culture of coaching and continuous development."

Boueri points out that RAKTDA also worked with employees to remove irrational expectations from their leaders. "When we receive complaints from employees about their leaders, we repeat the same message- leaders can make mistakes too," she says. "It's how they learn to be better leaders. The aim is to ensure that everyone is treated fairly. However, if employees don't receive the bare minimum of fairness, we immediately intervene by getting all the facts and coaching our leaders. We do not expect changes overnight, but we do expect them to evolve consistently."

Anisha Oberoi, founder and CEO, Secret Skin. Source: Secret Skin

Active listening and communication are essential to achieve this alignment, Mougharbel stresses. "Make it about the people," he says. "Ask them what they need regularly. For instance, people feel they deserve a promotion, but it was given to a colleague. Did the manager communicate to you why it was given to someone else and not you? That accountability and responsibility to make things clear falls on the manager."

Businesses will struggle to survive if they fail to communicate with employees in the era of "The Great Resignation," and it's time for managers to recognize that employees have the upper hand.. They expect everything from their workplaces- and rightly so. A few years ago, people prioritized their job titles, salaries, and brand values. While they may continue to want all of that today, they'd want it to be at a workplace that respects them and provides an environment where they can bring out their best. "The GCC has been a trendsetter in every aspect," Mougharbel says. "Workplaces here have improved, but when we take a global perspective, there's a long way to go. We are improving, but are we there yet? No. I certainly hope to see businesses from the region take a lead in workplace satisfaction." The COVID-19 pandemic, ruled by unfamiliarity, is testing business leaders around the world. With no end in sight, its consequences are likely to last long. A change in mindsets and sensitivity to employees'

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