What COVID-19 Has Taught Us About Gender Leadership

By Kawal Preet | March 8, 2021

This International Women’s Day, lessons on how to achieve a more equal, inclusive future in a post-pandemic world.

The gendered impacts of COVID-19 are all around us. Women have been disproportionately affected as the economic fallout from COVID-19 exacerbated inequality like never before. But it has also given us greater insights into just how we can become better leaders.

That is particularly significant as we mark International Women’s Day in 2021. What we do next as leaders will affect generations to come. That’s why we should focus firmly on leadership, not gender. Leadership lessons from COVID-19 are universal and not specific to women.

It’s no longer what we’ve learned throughout our leadership journey that will help guide the next generation of female leaders. It’s what we’ve learned in the last year - sharing just how we were challenged. What worked, what didn’t, and how we create a sustainable future together.

4 critical lessons for recovery

The events of 2020 altered everything we once took for granted. What we have now is a choice to change - and harness this disruption for good.

To champion future women leaders for post-COVID times where ‘now meets next’, I see four critical leadership lessons for recovery:

1) Counter the unpredictable with flexibility - and gratitude

A crucial part of leadership over the past year has been helping everyone get more comfortable with a constant state of unpredictability. That has meant learning to be much more flexible and to live from a place of gratitude. Expressing gratitude has become more significant because it not only helps teams feel cared for, but it also empowers everyone to build resilience and productivity.

In my experience, teams who communicate and work well during crisis build that pride. I started my new role leading the FedEx region of AMEA just as the global pandemic was taking hold, so I’m very grateful to my amazing team for their support and collaboration as we encountered a raft of new and ever-changing challenges over the past year.

2) Focus on culture

At FedEx, we see our strong people culture as one of our biggest competitive advantages - not just connecting people and possibilities in business, but taking care of, and lifting up, individuals and teams. We have been doing that for a long time, but COVID-19 has created a greater sense of urgency.

For us, that’s meant being sensitive to what’s happening in different markets, to families struggling under the strain of working from home, finding ways to help alleviate stress from lockdowns, and helping minimize the particular economic impact on women. How we manage our own mental health and that of our teams has become a priority.

Through COVID-19, we’ve been handed a key opportunity to be more open about feeling vulnerable. We’ve witnessed a growing acceptance in society that “it’s ok not to be ok”, so we have to encourage people to keep talking about it. We’ve had regular check-ins with team members, especially in the midst of video conferencing fatigue.

Leaders should keep nurturing organizational culture to focus on diversity and inclusion, but also keep the positive workplace changes we’ve seen in the past year. Whether that’s flexible working or working from home, we must use our leadership to instil trust and hope, shaping a better future for women, for our businesses and our communities.

3) Find courage and meaning in what we do

I know it takes courage in difficult times to keep moving forward, but we can learn a lot about ourselves by how we deal with tough situations. Learn not to “freeze”, but instead ask, ‘what can I do? How can I help?’

Have courageous conversations about pandemic fatigue and mental health, because it is both on a personal level and also at work where we find meaning.

Finding purpose, focusing on what matters in our personal and work lives, is the hallmark of successful organisations. At FedEx, that revolves around fulfilling our role as an essential business, especially as we play a key part in distributing COVID-19 vaccines worldwide.

4) Dig deep to find personal resilience

None of this has been easy. The constant state of change we’ve seen has required both grit and resilience. Those attributes are usually much stronger than we think – the degree to which those under pressure can dig deep and recover quickly from crisis.

People with a high degree of resilience do well because they see setbacks as temporary - as something that CAN be changed. Resilience gives us all the ability to adapt, to be agile, and to soar in the face of adversity.

So what do these four critical leadership lessons have in common?

They are all about forging real connections with people for lasting change.

Leadership in a more inclusive world

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we must increasingly tap the strength of our people and use it to look after our workforce and the most vulnerable in society.

COVID-19 has given us a superb opportunity to build a more equitable and inclusive workplace, where female and all kinds of diverse leaders can thrive. It has disrupted everything we thought we knew and shown us what can be achieved in a short period of time.

Make no mistake, women have clout to create the kind of change we need to see. Women already control more than $40 trillion US dollars of global consumer spending, and 40% of the world’s registered businesses are companies owned by women.

Make no mistake, women have clout to create the kind of change we need to see. Women already control more than $40 trillion US dollars of global consumer spending, and 40% of the world’s registered businesses are companies owned by women.

My own workplace is a shining beacon for change - women already play a strong and highly visible role in leadership at FedEx. For us, female leadership is a long-established norm, part of our FedEx “secret sauce”. I believe that has helped us gain unique insights into how we can use our COVID-19 experience to create something new.

For instance, we see it as a social and economic priority to provide women and minority entrepreneurs with the tools they need to succeed in times of uncertainty.

In India, 15.4 million women lost their jobs between March and April 2020 alone. Just 6% of India’s start-ups are solely founded by women, but many of these female-owned small businesses suffered a huge drop in demand. Resuming uninterrupted service and getting access to supply chains and a regular cash flow is vital to economic recovery, so we are creating opportunities through specific programs in India.
Make no mistake, women have clout to create the kind of change we need to see. Women already control more than $40 trillion US dollars of global consumer spending, and 40% of the world’s registered businesses are companies owned by women.

indian-woman-is-working

FedEx has teamed up with community NGO United Way Mumbai to support vulnerable female-led SMEs. Together, we’re working to ensure 400 women from low-income groups in India who have recently been operating a small business get the tools and essential support needed to re-start their enterprises and bounce back.

It’s just one way to use our leadership might to create a more equitable future, and not just for women. The entire global economy benefits from more women in the workforce, from more diverse entrepreneurs, from lifting families out of poverty. And the faster we can achieve that the better.

Searching for more tips and trends for female-owned small businesses and COVID-19 recovery stories? Visit our LinkedIn page for more.
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About the Author
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Kawal Preet

President,
Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa, FedEx Express

Kawal started out as a FedEx engineer in Singapore over 20 years ago, and she’s now the President of FedEx Express AMEA. Kawal is based in Hong Kong.

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