Leaders in Time of COVID: Reflections on 2021 

As 2021 ends, we have been reflecting on how the second year of learning to live and work with COVID has impacted on leadership talent around the world.

Our own leadership team, working out of London, New York, Singapore and Shanghai, have taken some time to share their biggest lessons from conversations with talent that is transforming business as we know it. These are the leaders who are driving businesses invested in building valuable customer relationships – brands, media, agencies, and technology companies – all grappling with how to best service customers in a time of seismic change.

It seems that while they have learned to embrace the new normal and juggled the consequences of the pandemic, business leaders and candidates alike have identified new, unexpected opportunities in a post pandemic world.

To all those we worked with, we would like to express our thanks and wishes for a successful and restful year end, in celebrations with your loved ones.


Ian Priest, Global CEO

“Leaders needed to be empathetic with their teams and have the confidence to make the most of growth and investment opportunities that the market presents.”

This past year has predominantly been about dealing with adversity and the unknown as we hesitantly came out of lockdown and some of our workforce started coming back to the office and others continued to work remotely. And the economy started to rebound with marketing being invested in again as companies looked to grow. Leaders needed to be empathetic with their teams and have the confidence to make the most of growth and investment opportunities that the market presents.


Juliet Timms, Founder

“The leaders who have been successful are those who have been communicating openly with their teams.”

In the challenging past year, the leaders who have been successful are those who have been communicating openly with their teams. In times when people felt insecure about the future and their job stability, struggled with mental health, and were challenged on many other fronts, transparent communication has made a big difference. By listening carefully and keeping an open line of communication, leaders were able to win their team’s trust, identify who might have been struggling and as a result, offer the needed support to achieve successful outcomes both privately and for the business.


Jay Haines, Founder

“Creating more flexible work arrangements, schedules, and strategies to support work-life balance will help employers hire and retain the best talent within their organisation and in the industry.”

COVID lockdowns around the world have had a considerable impact on the talent market and have led to a real “war on talent”.  Candidates have reprioritised what’s important to them and have started redesigning their lives around their newfound values to put family and quality of life first. Many will no longer put business travel and long work hours over family time. To employers this means that creating more flexible work arrangements, schedules, and strategies to support work-life balance will help them hire and retain the best talent within their organisation and in the industry.

Great leaders have realised that it is possible to effectively marry quality time with their teams in person and give them the freedom to manage themselves and their work from outside the office. The best talents are highly sought after, and they know this. They are no longer ready to compromise and are either requesting salary rises of up to 20-30% or are turning down exciting opportunities that would require long hours spent in-person in the office.


Sarah Skinner, CEO EMEA

“Mental health is arguably one of the biggest threats to a high performing workforce.”

The second year of a global health crisis has brought various challenges to organisations and to their employees. Mental health is arguably one of the biggest threats to a high performing workforce, whether for employees directly or indirectly. As a result, leadership teams must be equipped with tools to help them identify signs of degrading mental health and put in place the right support. Long gone are the days when this was the responsibility of HR.

Job security is another challenge. The pandemic saw redundancies at every level including at the top. So senior leaders are more wary of walking away from longevity of service for the risk of a new role. Diversity and inclusion are a big concern too. Traditionally diversity was merely defined by gender and ethnicity, though it is a far broader and more complex than this. Inclusion means ensuring a business is genuinely prepared to adopt diversity in its broadest sense.

Finally, the new working environment is in still in flux, whatever this might mean. For some organisations it might mean working from home. For others it might mean the ability from working remotely, wherever this might be. For others it means enforcing a minimum presence in the office. All this is forcing organisations to question the status quo and set new rules without alienating employees and their personal and mental health needs.


Helen Duffy, CEO APAC

“Hiring organisations must move fast, keep up the momentum in a hiring process and take some risks.”

In the past 12 months we have observed the best talents have aggressively been sought out more than ever before. Hence it is crucial that leaders reflect on what they can do to retain their top employees, on how they can inspire their teams and which growth opportunities could be a right fit for the near future, and potentially present opportunities that the employees might have not even considered for themselves.

With the growing “war on talent” during 2021, gone are the days of an employer’s market. Hiring organisations must move fast, keep up the momentum in a hiring process and take some risks. Good leaders should be prepared to invest in modern, progressive hires to support the growth of the organisation, aware of the fact that top candidates will come with a hefty price tag.

Equally, to avoid the inflation of remuneration, leaders need to be prepared to walk away from excessive demands and prepare with a back-up plan. Chances are that top candidates, particularly with enviable, progressive backgrounds who are proven in areas such as business and digital transformation, will have a good sense of their market value and demands.


David Nobbs, Managing Partner and Head of Consumer, EMEA

“It is the little things that matter, those moments where you ask, “How are you?” and genuinely care about the response.”

Individuals have significantly more choice coming out of the pandemic, both within their current organisation and across the broader business landscape. Employers find themselves in a battle either to retain their best talent or to attract great candidates.

Whilst in the past, career decisions were usually based on the attractiveness of an opportunity combined with values and culture fit, in our current COVID world, people’s careers blur into their private lives as they take place right in their home offices or even in their living rooms. Therefore, professional choices have become even more important: talent look left and right, up and down before settling for a role and chose to work with a group of individuals who have a broader purpose.

What this means to employer is that just focusing on hygiene factors will no longer enable them to get or retain the best employees. It is the little things that matter, those moments where you ask, “How are you?” and genuinely care about the response.


Debra Sercy, Managing Partner and Head of Agency, Americas

“Leadership teams must coalesce around values that are authentic and lead by example with empathetic ambition.”

This year it became apparent how an empowering, empathetic company culture based on strong values is non-negotiable to business success. Leadership teams’ true values came out during COVID – if they were authentic and brave, they became stronger. If, once the veneer wore off under stress, the values leading a company’s culture were weak and toxic, leaders lost their most talented staff and best clients. Leadership teams must authentically and empathetically lead by example. Placing a priority on creating ways of working that allow for talent to produce killer ideas and results, while not compromising their mental wellness, safety, and security, is paramount to success in 2022.


Wladimir Silva, Managing Partner, APAC

“Leaders who demonstrated strong empathy as they navigated the pandemic challenges strengthened their bonds with their teams.”

The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted a must-have leadership trait: empathy. Leaders who demonstrated strong empathy as they navigated the pandemic challenges strengthened their bonds with their teams. They were highly perceptive of their teams’ struggles. They were in constant pursuit to create a conducive work environment, more inclusive and flexible. These leaders were highly connected with their teams. They used active listening to identify the struggles individual contributors were facing during a period of high anxiety, which impacted their organization and teams and their loved ones.


Natalie Napier, Managing Partner and Head of Agency, EMEA

The strongest leaders stood out on two key fronts: their ability to be agile […] and the critical importance of persistent communication.

In these times of constant flux, the strongest leaders stood out on two key fronts. The first was their ability to be agile, to flex and adapt to the constantly changing circumstances and to find a way forward that was accommodating of their people and their business interests. The second was in understanding the critical importance of persistent communication with (and listening to) their people. In times of uncertainty those leaders who engaged in regular all company meetings and who sought out the perspectives of their teams demonstrated honesty, care and empathy.


Finally, a little reminder as we head into 2022 that we are here to help you and your business deal with the challenges ahead. 

At Grace Blue, relationships are everything. The relationships with our clients. The relationships with our candidates. Every relationship we have is built on our service values of humanity, care, and commitment. We take the utmost pride in helping people and businesses succeed. This means we bring the best candidates to the table every time and work with clients for the long-term to help them achieve real transformation. 

Much of our business is repeat business – proof of how every relationship matters to Grace Blue, now and for the future.