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At home, CEOs learn to face the camera

A sudden shift to remote work means corporate leaders have had to learn to shoot video, communicate better on screen and do tasks that their assistants would handle in the office

Prashanth Achar, 51, was making a video on anxiety management for his employees at GP Petroleums, sometime in April. But the experience was making the Mumbai-based CEO himself tense since it was his first time working with a selfie camera. Before the lockdown, his PR team used to take care of such initiatives. “You look so anxious yourself," laughed his wife, seeing the result. He did many takes that day, finally sending the one which his wife shot.

Ever since the lockdown started, corporate leaders have seen a dramatic change in the way they communicate. In the absence of face-to-face meetings with clients or employees, it’s the camera pinhole that has become the medium to instill confidence, drive productivity and mentor the organization, and leaders are rising to the occasion by upskilling themselves. CXOs, especially from traditional industries, have been taking trainings by their digital teams, learning new tools to do webinars, e-town halls, virtual meetings and virtual coffees.

“I call it public speaking in private, to a camera," laughs Achar.

The use of camera has become critical, agrees Koki Sato, who took the mantle of general manager in Takeda India, a pharmaceutical multinational, in April. Sato, who has been stuck in Ukraine since India stopped international flights, has slowly developed trust with his 100-plus employees in India using WebEx and Microsoft Teams, doing one-on-one meetings, webinars, town halls, presentations and discussions as well as attending informal catch-ups. “It was sudden, so I made connecting with the team a key priority," he says.

A recent LinkedIn survey suggests 67% of senior executives have increased their time spent in online learning. “Most of these are first-time managers and senior leadership who are figuring out how to operate in the new normal," says Ashutosh Gupta, country manager, LinkedIn India.

The lockdown has brought the communication function to the fore and accelerated deployment of video conferencing apps like Zoom, Skype, WebEx, says N. Bringi Dev, advisor and retired professor, Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore. “Leadership has realized they cannot take communication for granted anymore and need to spend time for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous situations and be prepared and adequately provisioned in terms of infrastructure, security, access and bandwidth," says Dev.

It’s not that easy though. In online interactions, it’s easy to miscommunicate as emotions, body language are harder to decode. That’s why Achar spends more time in online meetings. “The lesser I see the team, the more important I think is the need to engage, empathize and minimize anxiety," he says.

Globally, according to LinkedIn’s survey, two out of five professionals working from home believe their leaders can help them feel supported by organizing more team video meetings. “There’s no feedback loop, so it affects discussions on sensitive personal topics or even ideating together using a whiteboard," says Jacob Peter Kidangath, senior vice president, Robert Bosch Engineering and Business Solutions. This has made a fundamental change in the way Kidangath communicates. “Since observing body language is not possible, as a leader it has become important to use the right pace, right words, use pictures and examples," he explains.

The medium has pushed leaders to communicate feedback on one-on-one calls instead of messages. Leaders now need to practice more emotional intelligence when using digital tools, says Shalini Bhattacharya, founder, White Ray Coaching, who specializes in leadership coaching.

THE RIGHT ANGLE

With the distance of working-from-home, the personal life has also become part of the professional space, giving more creditability to the leader’s image. When Arvind Subramanium, managing director and chief executive officer of real estate business Mahindra Lifespaces, suffered a back spasm, he conducted a video conference while lying in his bed. To avoid embarrassment, he had switched off the video but it turned out that his team could see his supine posture. “My three children keep demanding devices and spaces at home while I’m in meetings and my employees hear them screaming," he says, laughing, adding that needs to improve his tech skills more.

Like Subramanium’s incident, the team meeting which Noida-based Saurabh Goyal, president, Havells India Limited, was heading, erupted into laughter when his vegetable vendor called him in the middle of it. “These moments might sound embarrassing but they help soften relationships and make me look more human," says Goyal.

At the end of the end of the day, it’s the art of listening and empathizing that will define a leader in this new normal, adds Mankiran Chowhan, managing director, software solutions company SAP Concur. “We have to prepare harder for the meeting and listen more actively as it’s virtual."

Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com

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