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The early days of the pandemic were unsettling and confusing times for managers. Everything changed precipitously with widespread shutdowns or a heightened need to meet health and safety and other personnel demands. The fall was expected to bring a semblance of normality to work, but, of course, that hasn’t happened. Many managers are facing frustration and greater complexity in their work as they grapple with a scenario in which some individuals are returning to the workplace and others, perhaps caught up in child-care emergencies or facing health concerns, continue to work remotely.

It’s almost as if they are overseeing a chessboard, with some of their pieces on the sideline – on furlough – with others arranged in a complicated pattern on the board that has to be addressed thoughtfully. As I pondered that thought, I was reminded that researcher and leadership adviser Marcus Buckingham used the chessboard analogy 15 years ago when he tried to distill the essence of management in his book The One Thing You Need to Know.

Great managers, he observed, play chess, rather than checkers. In checkers, the pieces move in the same way, whereas in chess, they move differently. If you want to excel at chess, you have to learn how each piece moves and then incorporate those unique moves into your plan of attack. “The same is true for the game of managing. Mediocre managers play checkers with their people. They assume (or hope) that their employees will be motivated by the same things, driven by the same goals, desire the same kind of relationships and learn roughly in the same way,” he wrote.

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Managers talk about flexibility but often don’t walk the talk. They try to customize offerings for clients but don’t usually consider the same approach with staff. This is a time for flexibility and customization internally, whatever the financial pressures. It’s time to play chess.

Be systematic. I’d suggest listing the names of each subordinate on an Excel spreadsheet, with four columns alongside marked autonomy, learning, advancement and children. You need to think through for each individual how you will answer those first three crucial work needs, as well as addressing what their family situation is and how that affects their time, focus and ability to contribute these days.

Consultant Scott Eblin suggests on his blog that the pandemic has shown talented, high-performing people working from home can be more self-directed than they were perhaps allowed to be at the office. That speaks to autonomy, something we all prize – and is worth encouraging. He also feels the pandemic has made clear that proximity should matter less when determining which opportunities are assigned to which people. “Leaders need to prioritize and encourage assignments and opportunities based on their familiarity with the quality of people’s work rather than the physical proximity of the people doing the work,” he says. Keep that in mind as you ponder your spreadsheet and hand out assignments in the coming months.

Mr. Buckingham stressed that to excel as a leader requires the opposite approach from being a great manager. Instead of worrying about what is unique in everyone, you must take a more collective approach. Great leaders, he says, discover what is universal and capitalize on it.

He noted common needs include security, community and respect – all aroused this fall, of course, by the fear, isolation and confusion people are facing. But the most powerful universal need, he felt, is for clarity. “To transform our fear of the unknown into confidence in the future, you must discipline yourself to describe our joint future vividly and precisely,” he says. “As your skill grows, so will our confidence in you.”

That means you must communicate continually – long after you are bored with the message. You may want to institute specific Zoom meetings for that purpose or simply add a time for clarity at the beginning or end of regular meetings.

Perhaps paper is a better format for you. I loved Alan Greenberg’s Memos from the Chairman, a collection of missives to staff he issued while leading investment bank Bear Stearns. Almost 25 years after reading it, I still remember the precision, doggedness and humour with which he explained and appealed to staff, notably the reminders on how watching the pennies in buying the proverbial paper clips pay off – not a bad message these days.

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Patrick Deane combined vision and inspiration, contradiction and nuance, in a recent 12-page letter to the Queen’s University community summing up the conversation he started about the future when he became principal two years ago, arguing the pandemic has helped to reveal what is at the institution’s core. He was rallying people to envision a better future, which Mr. Buckingham says is crucial. Great leaders see the future optimistically. They are convinced things will get better.

Mr. Buckingham also tackled the one thing vital to sustained individual success. His research suggests it’s discovering what you don’t like – and stopping doing it. I’m hesitant; doing things we dislike can be good for us, building discipline and determination, as we tell our children. And some things nobody likes to do have to be dealt with. But maybe that’s an additional column for your spreadsheet: Talking to your team about what they don’t like doing and figuring out whether they can stop doing it.

This is an unprecedented time. But thinking about the chessboard of people you lead and how to attend to their individual and collective needs is bound to help.


  • Insead graduate school professor Michael Lee says teams that have thrived with remote work created new rituals and practices to compensate for the loss of previous informal interactions. They changed their meeting cadence from longer meetings once a week to shorter meetings multiple times a week, and added virtual tea breaks and coffee breaks for informal sharing.
  • The pandemic apparently increased employee engagement, according to Gallup surveys, which found the metric, normally very stable, jumped in the U.S. from 35 per cent pre-COVID to a new high of 38 per cent in May and further escalated to 41 per cent in late June to mid-July. Now it is back to 36 per cent, however, just above the March level.
  • Three questions to ask your staff, from consultant Nathan Magnuson: What has been the most difficult part of the experience in recent months? How are you taking care of yourself (and is it enough)? Who have you been able to support through this?

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.

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