Stepping up in times of uncertainty and change

The current pandemic requires leaders and their workforce to adapt to a digital environment. That includes adapting how one teaches and learns. This transformation from in-person to online is here to stay, at least for the near future. Engagement Expert Gretchen Dobson describes in this article some of the options leaders have to incorporate learning in a COVID-world.

Do you feel more aware these days? Do the days feel fuller as you continue to navigate your daily realities? Does your mindset feel more like “one day at a time,” versus “plan for a rainy day?”

If so, you are not alone. Many of us have undergone a similar transformation. We are present. We are observant. We are engaging with ourselves and doing our best to retain enough fuel each day to continue powering our personal and professional lives.

Even though I’m currently not traveling, the busy pace continues! I used to rely on getting decent sleep and rest when I was home. Now, in the absence of traveling for in-person work, training and speaking engagements, I’m managing more online time at all hours of the day. Some days, I have to remind myself to take a break, go to bed early, and unplug from technology at a set time each night. Moreover, I am checking in with my colleagues, friends and young professionals I mentor to make sure they, too, are taking care of themselves.

This raises questions. What is this new world emerging? How is it calling on us as leaders to be our best during these uncertain times? Let’s explore this question. Let’s think about how engaged leaders can step up and be courageous, compassionate, culturally-minded and cultivating others.


How Engaged Leaders Cultivate Others

I think engaged leaders have to be teachers. I found that teaching is an opportunity to impact those with whom you know today and those with whom you may never meet: the next generation of leaders. For me, as I’m developing my online classes and webinars, I strive for interactive modules designed to meet the professional development needs of both senior executives and management. Those needs are rapidly changing so I continually reassess which skills are most important for specific teams. My delivery style is also important as I “bring myself to class” and develop rapport with the students during synchronous sessions.

The current pandemic requires leaders and their workforce to adapt to a digital environment. That includes adapting how one teaches and learns. Schools and universities around the world adopted online instruction this year. This transformation from in-person to online is here to stay, at least for the near future.

In a recent McKinsey Global Survey, almost 90% of executives said they were experiencing skill gaps in the workforce or expected them within a few years. But less than half of respondents had a clear sense of how to address the problem.

How would you have responded to this survey? 

In my viewpoint an internal talent strategy is key. Such a strategy empowers your community to improve from within. Strategic development of your in-house talent means creating the best possible learning environments to foster continuous improvement and personal growth. It also means cultivating workplace learning opportunities in flexible and accessible ways. The traditional classroom setting is yielding to new virtual spaces and new social norms guiding how leaders teach and learners learn.


Let’s look at two different approaches to engaged leadership and teaching.


  1. Formal Education

Chances are you know your stuff better than most. Over the years, you’ve supported the upskilling of your teams by providing professional development and, perhaps, educational benefits. But the context for these opportunities is changing. It’s likely that many of your industry conferences will be canceled this year. You may need to cut discretionary budgets and drop some benefits. Even with these cutbacks, how can you still support and cultivate others with learning opportunities?

Become a “Professor of your Practice,” seeking opportunities to teach in executive education or accredited programs. I did, and am grateful for the opportunity to refine leadership skills such as public speaking, writing, critical analysis and, now, digital pedagogy. What I love most about teaching is the opportunity to share my professional passions, motivating others to learn more, remaining creative and responsive. I continuously enhance my own understanding of what students value in their learning experiences.

Does your organization have a Chief Learning Officer (CLO) to oversee workplace learning and other professional development opportunities? With your input, CLOs can build a strategy informed by: rapidly identifying the skills on which your recovery business model relies; building employee skills essential to your organization’s success; launching tailored learning plans to close critical skill gaps.


  1. Informal Education

As an engaged leader, you care about developing teams with the right set of skills and cultivating future leaders with adaptive attributes and traits. This means you will need to invest in ongoing informal educational opportunities. By investment, I don’t mean investment of capital funds. I mean is you and your organization’s commitment of your time and talent to sponsor programs such as:

Monthly Partnership Challenge. “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Even before COVID-19, we understood the value of building partnerships to sustain business and enhance the impact of our organizations’ missions. The way forward will involve new modes of collaboration. The monthly partnership challenge invites team members to form teams and use work time to identify potential partners for the next 6-12 months. Celebrate their participation, creativity, and entrepreneurial ideas.

CEO for the Day.’ Invite your rising stars to be YOU for a day. Do a bit of planning to create a day where your protégé(e)s participate in meetings. Invite them to work with you on a webinar presentation, keynote speech or an investor pitch. Conclude the day by sharing each other’s perceptions of the experience and what you each learned.

Mini-Sabbaticals. Leaders know how it feels to be burned out. You no doubt have taken vacations, enjoyed tech-free days, or perhaps experimented with a 4-day workweek to find and feel balance. What did you learn about yourself during these times? Did you learn how to surf? Finish that mystery novel? Find your breath in yoga? Engaged leaders can teach by example and open up opportunities to others. Who among your leadership team deserves a mini-sabbatical? Will the chance to recharge pay personal dividends for your team member and create a more engaged leader?



What have we learned this year and how can we continue to engage more regularly in formal and informal learning? Engaged leaders understand how tomorrow’s workplace, career choices and educational opportunities are interdependent. In a blended offline/online world, it’s critical for engaged leaders to invest in developing others as a cornerstone of transformational leadership. My wish for all is that you find your “inner teacher.”


Take care,


About the author

Gretchen Dobson

Gretchen Dobson is a global engagement strategist, author and academic with 29 years’ experience working across six continents.

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