Leadership Lessons with…Jacqui Sanders, Senior Partner and Managing Director of Healthcare at FleishmanHillard UK

This month we interviewed Jacqui Sanders, Managing Director of Healthcare at FleishmanHillard UK. Jacqui shares her thoughts on the importance of building diverse and collaborative teams, the challenges of hybrid working, and the key qualities needed to be a good leader in 2022.

Jacqui Sanders

After two years of leading organisations remotely, what have you learned about virtual leadership?

First you have to accept that you need to tailor your leadership style specifically to the virtual environment. Only then can you overcome the challenges and make the most of the opportunities it offers. When I think about leadership, I always consider the element of communication; how do I make sure that people understand the direction of travel? How do we create engagement between people so that there is good connectivity and consistency of approach? A part of working together for my team is to enable a very agile approach for our clients, which allows us to scale up and scale down. Good connectivity is foundational to this but underpinning that you first need a lot of trust between people which is much easier to achieve face to face. Without body language it’s harder to read levels of engagement – it’s really easy for people to get side-tracked by an email or text when they’re working remotely - so a key thing to do in the virtual environment is to encourage active listening.

Providing support for people is very different as well. In an office setting you are able to see if people are working late, you can see if they look tired, if there is a change in their behaviours, body language etc. but you can't always see that when you're working remotely. Making sure that you're conscious of that and finding ways to be on top of how people are feeling is therefore also important when leading in the virtual environment.

The third element is empowerment, because you do need people to be self-starting if they're working remotely and that must be encouraged and rewarded.

Essentially the key thing for me about the virtual leadership environment is you must think about things differently and you must be very purposeful about your leadership and your relationship building.

How is remote/hybrid working affecting your company culture and what can leaders do to sustain a culture for remote teams?

I believe the things we were doing before the pandemic set us up for success early on and within the healthcare team, we have managed to sustain our culture well. We started working together to define our mission and vision already in 2019. Continuing that process remotely and adding to it a clear set of values we have been able to bring them into all the work we do which has helped us stay united and strengthened the culture. We also created opportunities to come together virtually that allowed us to reinforce that sense of team and comradery, and now that we can come into the office, we are tailor making our team meetings for a hybrid setting. Even our remote joiners have integrated well, and we have a strong sense of mutual support and togetherness. Really the message is that to be successful working remotely comes down to being very purposeful as a leader, being very clear on the direction of travel and creating multiple opportunities to connect.

The bigger the team/company the more purposeful you must be. As we emerged from the pandemic and adopted hybrid working, in terms of the wider business in London, what really struck us was the number of people we have taken on since the pandemic. They joined remotely, and so coming into the office there are more people you don't know. Our culture has stayed surprisingly strong but nevertheless with so many new people we think it’s important to reinforce it. That would be the same for any business that has grown through the pandemic. Our approach has been threefold: to look for ways to use technology to connect us better on a day-to-day basis; to create opportunities for people who don’t normally work together to get to know each other; and to make the workplace better suited to hybrid collaboration. We have done things like set up our own intranet to provide central online connectivity and a forum for networking and showcasing our work and created ‘festivals’ - days that bring people together to share work, expertise, and skills in a fun way. Our office environment, is also a much more collaborative fun and vibrant space to be in. This purposeful approach is really helping to connect people and instil a sense of fun and creativity into hybrid working which is so much part of our culture. Every business is different, but ultimately, as a leader you have to be proactive if you want to maintain a sense of team and build and retain culture with remote and hybrid working.

Employee demands are changing beyond salary and benefits. What changes are you seeing and how can leaders meet these evolving employee demands? 

It’s really all about looking at the person individually. Taking a holistic perspective, trying to understand what their needs are to be happy in their work and to feel rewarded. I don’t think this is new but what has changed is the need to be much more cognisant of people’s different personal situations and provide support accordingly. For example, it is important to be supportive of not just new and existing parents, but also carers and people with other unique personal situations and as businesses we need to find ways to support all our staff and the different challenges they are facing. Supporting diversity has been increasing in importance but now it is business critical. It’s what people expect, and you have to make sure you foster a culture and put the right plans in place to ensure inclusion. Having a good TD team is so important but as a leader you also must take (and enjoy taking) a people centric approach. In my case this is something I have always found immensely rewarding, but now more than ever what I am seeing is that the provision of purposeful and interesting work, quality training, a supportive team environment, and career development pathways are crucial areas to focus on.

I have also seen that as people have traversed the pandemic, many have rethought their lives and how they want to work. Everybody's different, and that's where you must be flexible in order to get the best out of each individual. People want to choose for themselves what works best for them and that includes whether they work virtually, in the office or in a hybrid way. In practical terms, every time we do anything it's with a hybrid nature in mind - we always have the option for people to join meetings remotely and we also have a face-to-face option. We think that is important, and we found that it's been very attractive for people. Whilst a hybrid approach is certainly more challenging for businesses it better reflects the more individualised approach people want and, where it can be achieved, there are sure to be significant benefits to be had.

Ultimately, to meet the evolving needs of employees there is no escaping it, as a leader you must make the effort to know your people and listen actively.

With an increasing focus on workplace mental health, how have you seen the industry supporting the well-being of its employees?

Talking to people across the industry we are all acutely aware of the importance of supporting and destigmatising mental health. There is increasingly more awareness of the importance of encouraging open communication and having regular check ins. Simply asking the question ‘are you ok?’ can make a big difference. We regularly see webinars and discussion forums exploring this. There are also great tools that businesses are using. Our employees, for example, have access to the Calm app which many people find hugely beneficial. Upskilling and supportive initiatives are also on the increase. For example, we regularly invite external experts to come and talk to us, and we also flex roles to provide support for individuals when they're going through a difficult period. I don’t think we are alone in this, but I do believe we have been leading the industry with our approach. We are also seeing a focus on prevention to support well-being with training and programmes to build resilience and help people manage stress. I think it’s great. The more our industry can collectively encourage people to proactively work on their well-being, feel free to have an open dialogue about their mental health and have available to them that extra layer of support when it is needed the better it will be for workplace mental health.

Post ‘the great resignation era’ – what challenges do you think leaders face in 2022?

If you take healthcare communications, specifically the health industry, in the UK at least we haven’t had the great resignation to the same extent as other sectors, and I think that's because we work in a purpose-driven industry. Most people are drawn into healthcare because they want to make a difference somewhere along the line, as well as being interested in the science. And so there is a little bit more of a hold on people and they're less likely to move away from it entirely. I think one of the biggest challenges that we are going to have though is the changing nature of the environment and the agility that is going to be required of people. Whether you're working in-house, or whether you're working in an agency environment, the external environment is changing so rapidly, and we have got to be able to adapt. Working in an agile way can feel uncomfortable for some people, and perhaps the challenge of the future for leaders is getting people comfortable with being uncomfortable and managing the requirement for agility that the industry is going to need.

What do you think are the key qualities needed from leaders in 2022?

Leaders must be very people-centric in their leadership style otherwise retention is going to be a problem. They also need to be agile in their thinking and strategic approach. Setting up your teams for success with the right structures and the right opportunities for networking and connecting with one another and externally as well as empowering people is going to be very important. I believe we are doing things here that set us apart – you need to be prepared to challenge the status quo and we have done that here in London. Leaders need to inspire but in today’s environment they also need to lead by empowering others, and likely the biggest successes will come because diverse thinking and ideas are being put into the melting pot from a wide variety of people with different perspectives and lived experiences regardless of level.

What skillsets do you think businesses within the healthcare industry will be looking for now and in the coming years?

Healthcare communications needs a unique set of skills. Above all we need people who are passionate about health and science and who want to make a difference but who also have an appetite to understand how businesses work and the commercials behind successful companies. The core skills of written and verbal communicators are also still important but empathy and being able to dig down and understand target audiences to better tailor approaches and find ways to cut through are equally as important. Essentially, we need people with a learning mindset - people who are open to new ideas, who are hungry and thirsty to learn, to self-develop, and to innovate. Openness is also going to be important as it’s a key part of building trust, and that’s crucial when you are working together in changing and complex environments. A willingness to have uncomfortable conversations and constructively challenge will also become increasingly important as we face new and challenging environments and need to innovate. Finally, enthusiasm and passion for what we're doing in the business and for the opportunities for career development remain important for healthcare communications. This has never been a business that suits people that just come to work to earn their money and go away – real interest and engagement is critical to success.

What are your company’s objectives for Diversity and Inclusion in 2022 and what do you think leaders can do to drive diversity and inclusion within the workplace?

At FleishmanHillard we have set an ambition to be the most diverse agency. In London we now do all our graduate recruitment CV blind and adopt an approach developed in collaboration with EY to encourage diversity and inclusion. We not only want to create diverse teams because it's the right thing to do but we fundamentally believe that diversity bringing different perspectives and different ideas to our work is key to value creation for clients. In the healthcare team, as across the company, we have people from different countries, different ethnicities, different religions, different socio-economic groups, people who are neurodiverse and people who are living with hidden disabilities.

As well as adopting inclusive hiring strategies, leaders and businesses generally need to also work to support these employees in a variety of ways. For example, with specific TD offerings, through adopting inclusive working practices, and with education in the workplace to help people understand and adopt appropriate ways of working. Remote working has been very beneficial because it allows for people to find the space that they are most comfortable in but leaders also need to ensure that the workplace is a welcoming place for all. Creating groups that help people with similar lived experiences come together can also be helpful.

It is the responsibility of leaders to support and empower teams and individuals to embrace diversity and inclusion in the working environment, and we take it very seriously, but I think our industry as a whole like every other industry still has a long way to go.

There is increasing expectation on companies and CEOS to lead on sustainability practice in line with 2030 Global Goals. What ESG strategies can leaders adopt for sustainable development and purpose?

There is no one solution to fit all. Every business needs to interrogate current practices and consider what strategies they can put in place to make a difference. Increasingly investors are making their decisions on what companies are doing and how effective they believe their ESG strategies are going to be. Crucially companies need to be careful when developing and articulating their strategies not to be seen to be ‘greenwashing’ which can be very damaging reputationally to the CEO and the business. It’s also important to note that whilst the C-Suite is typically driving overarching strategies, leaders at all levels within companies can seek to adopt sustainable development and purpose led strategies. For example, we have recently set up a climate change group within FleishmanHillard London, and we are looking to build out some of our own initiatives to take forward. Other leaders can do the same. There is an onus on us all to be proactive where we can because it is important for everyone – clients, employees and the general public. It's the responsible thing to do.

Posted on 29.06.2022

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