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Changing leadership styles to support your people in a time of economic challenge

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The resilience of leaders and the teams they manage has come under severe strain in recent years. How do different generations respond to pressure, and how should leaders alter their style to get the best out of their teams in an era of repeated crises?

Here, Ross Dawson, Operations, Procurement and Supply Chain Practice Lead, at Eton Bridge Partners, speaks with several senior figures in supply chain on this subject.

People who have entered the workplace in recent years have had to cope with an unprecedented sequence of crises. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and its after-effects has been swiftly followed by war in Ukraine, inflation, and a cost-of-living crisis in the UK. Has this constant buffeting built the resilience of the younger generation, or left them vulnerable? And what implication does that question have for leadership techniques in general?

Some leaders report a high degree of self-awareness and self-criticism among their newer colleagues. Susanne Robbins, Supply Chain Director at River Island, said: “I have Generation Z’s and Millennials in my team, and they say to me, ‘We’re the least resilient people in this room. We’re not ready for this – we’re not used to it and we don’t know how to deal with it’.”

Among their parents’ generation, however, there can be a more fatalistic response to crisis. Supply Chain Consultant Jacquie Cahill suggested that many people are saying; ‘We’re all going to hell in a handcart! I may as well treat myself and make sure my kids don’t go without’. In turn, she believes, this could lead to an unusually high spend this Christmas – with, inevitably, an increase in household debt to follow.

Some companies are running behavioural skills coaching programmes to ensure that younger colleagues can adjust to the modern working environment, and that there is greater understanding between colleagues from different generations. Many younger people want clear direction, and struggle if it is not given.

As Susanne put it: “We’re trying to work out how to solve really complex problems with great, bright people in a very different way from how we would have worked in the past.”

It’s important to consider whether the same attention needs to be paid to the attitudes of customers too. Andrea Frino, a Supply Chain Consultant, believes the disruption of recent years will reduce advocacy among consumers. “Customers are going to become less and less loyal,” he said, “and switching from one brand to another is going to be easier than ever. That makes the environment even more challenging.”

Leading with a mixture of authority, empathy and vulnerability

One technique leaders can use to generate better relationships between teams of varying generations is to display more vulnerability. Dan Culverhouse, most recently Head of Global Supply Chain Management at DKSH in Asia, said that it can be healthy – even for a leader of a team – to admit to uncertainty – and that it is OK not to be OK. This can lead to greater trust and openness and honest communication; “People got a lot closer and felt a lot more comfortable. By sharing their vulnerabilities, they became much more resilient to dealing with change.” Dan said.

But as Supply Chain Consultant Jacquie Cahill suggested, there are times when a balance must be struck: “We as leaders have to mix vulnerability with occasionally being the person who stands up when everybody around us is petrified by saying, ‘Right, I have a way through this’.”

Ultimately, the younger generation will instinctively look to their managers and say: “You guys get paid a lot of money, so you should be giving me some direction at the same time as helping me to understand this whilst showing vulnerability.”

As Supply Chain Transformation Consultant, Howard Pearson, put it; communication is fundamental to empathetic leadership. Teams – and customers – appreciate authenticity and honesty.

Introducing schemes to encourage greater togetherness

As Hari Sundaresan, Vice-Chair of the NHS London procurement partnership, observed that the internal structure of many organisations has changed. Rather than being able only to escalate an issue one rung of the ladder at a time, there is greater openness between layers of a business. One of the drivers behind this is, he said, that supply chain and procurement is a “resource-constrained market”. If people do not feel supported, they will simply walk out and take another job.

One way to encourage greater communication, and to create an environment where people feel they can air any issues, is an hour each Monday when people could discuss any problems they are facing, which has “blown away” the old NHS hierarchies. People from different departments are encouraged to pitch in and help each other.

Hari discussed a second innovation, a monthly session called “Safeguarding Our Success”, where teams can discuss their current projects, which in turn gives all parts of the business greater visibility of what their colleagues are doing.

Daniel brought an alternative perspective to the discussion because most of his team are in their sixties. He was inspired by a book by two US Navy SEALS called ‘Extreme Ownership’. This suggests that a leader says to their team: “Whatever problem you have, just tell me – and I will open that door for you.” The response from Daniel’s team was extremely positive, and they felt highly reassured that their manager was looking out for them. He added: “We hired a guy for less than he was already earning and when I asked why, he said, ‘Because I’ve heard about the great reputation of what goes on there and I want to work for you’.”

Honest, authentic communication is at the heart of all successful leadership styles and techniques in a challenging era.

As Maya Angelou said, people may remember what you say and do – but they will never forget how you make them feel.

My thanks to the experts who joined me and contributed to such an illuminating conversation.

If you’d like to discuss your procurement or supply chain capability, please contact Ross at or call her on +44 (0)7710 884 004.