A defining feature of leadership is the ability to manage unexpected crises.

When the scale of the crisis is pervasive enough to alter all parts of an ecosystem that is made up of both internal and external partners, the role of leadership becomes even more central. This was especially true during the initial days of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the leader of the UNSSC’s Knowledge Centre for Leadership and Management (KCLM), I found myself thrust into the epicenter of the crisis and crisis management

 As the pandemic emerged and became a destabilizing variable,  we found ourselves living in an unprecedented moment. Once we had addressed the most urgent matters, such as the safety and wellbeing of all team members, our attention turned to the many open and unanswered questions: How do we adapt to new ways of working? To what degree are the learning opportunities and services we offer still relevant to UN officials in today's upside-down reality? We found ourselves in continuous deliberations often with more questions than answers. This challenge affected us as a team, as an organization and as human beings. 

Adapting and innovating in the face of uncertainty became the new norm. For KCLM, it was no different. 


Mobilized by crisis

As for most organizations and business units alike, the COVID-19 pandemic posed a significant challenge to our business model. In line with our UNSSC strategic plan, more than 50 per cent of our learning programmes included a face-to-face component. These interactions bolstered our mission to connect people across UN systems organizations to forge and embrace ways of driving UN strategies, objectives and achieving the 2030 Agenda whilst fostering a new management and leadership culture in the UN system. Since such interactions form an important part of our learning programmes, the pandemic forced us to think differently about our delivery model. Failing to adapt would have directly threatened to jeopardize our ability to serve UN staff and fulfil our mission.

While we found ourselves initially jarred by the pandemic, we quickly found that we would need to change our own practices to overcome the obstacles. The challenge COVID-19 created a situation that could not be addressed merely through technical solutions but required dramatic adaptation: changes in beliefs and behaviours across the team. It called for adaptive leadership. 


Adapt to overcome

We recognized that to navigate through the transition we had to master typical stages of adaptive change that included innovating and transitioning our business model and programmes. This was primarily to ensure business continuity whilst preserving our capacity to deliver on programmes that are considered core elements in the talent and leadership development pipelines of some major UN system entities. It meant we had to commit ourselves to finding new approaches to programmes such as the UN Leaders programme and the Executive Management Programme. We had to find a way to make them just as effective, if not better, than before the pandemic. And we had to do this all online, which was a feat many had deemed impossible.   

New offerings and approaches had to be rolled out to address the 2020 challenges. Processes and tools honed during the transition phase became an integral part of a new business model for the team. To underpin the new business model, we had to outgrow the limitations of the team's current skillsets, managerial practices and internal organization. To meet this adaptive challenge, the Knowledge Centre for Leadership and Management articulated a strategy along three lines:

First, re-skilling: UNSSC already had some of the best UN professionals and expertise in the field of e-learning, but such know-how had not yet spread across the entire team. It was still somewhat of a "niche" skillset, as many activities continued to rely on traditional face-to-face interactions. That was no longer acceptable: The team designed and rolled-out capacity-building programmes for all members to boost our ability to design and facilitate effective online learning experiences. These programmes were subsequently offered to the UN system: From in-classroom training to e-learning: A hands-on workshop and “Delivering Engaging Live Virtual Training”.

Second, the radical shift caused by COVID-19 forced the Knowledge Centre for Leadership and Management to undertake re-tooling for all staff despite the pressure to contain expenses and invest in ICT equipment. This enabled us to take a quantum leap forward, augmenting our capacity to conduct synchronous e-learning sessions beyond our 20 virtual plenary classrooms that are similar to our physical classrooms in terms of their sophistication.

Lastly, meeting the challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic required a reorganization of the team to allow for more agility and versatility, and to enable collaboration, the flow of internal expertise, collective responsibility, peer accountability and new ways of working free from the limitations of artificial silos, hierarchical structures and obsolete management practices.


New programmes to meet changing needs

Overcoming this challenge didn’t happen overnight. It required collaborative and consultative efforts that were agile and iterative. In hindsight, the team demonstrated strong client-orientation, the courage to think out-of-the-box, and the flexibility to meet the needs of the system. It also meant making key appointments to leverage our instructional design potential and expertise to design, develop and implement new programmes and services with very fast turnaround time to meet the needs of our organizational partners and learners.

Rising to meet the challenges posed by COVID-19 led us to further develop a customized 360-degree performance assessment tool designed from the ground up to reflect the leadership framework endorsed by the CEB, and which can be used as a stand-alone instrument or in conjunction with the existing UN Leadership Culture Assessment Tool for teams and organizations. It also enabled us to launch more offerings such as ‘Executive Leadership for the Future of Work’, a digital learning series specifically designed for directors. The programme focuses on the specific challenges and pressure posed by the pandemic from different perspectives, including strategy, business continuity and talent management. Feedback from UN staff and partners suggests many other offerings in our programme portfolio have proved valuable to address the challenges posed by unprecedented levels of uncertainty and the need for quick transformation, such as our UNLOCK advisory services, and UN Leadership in Times of Uncertainty, an asynchronous e-learning programme (offered for free during the first wave of the pandemic) for all UN staff interested in strengthening individual leadership competencies during extraordinary and stressful circumstances.

As the world continues to grapple with COVID-19, there is no single way for an organization to adapt to this challenge. We need to constantly re-evaluate and adapt strategies in our efforts to ensure value-added, sustainability and achieve excellence. For the Knowledge Centre for Leadership and Management, this means putting in place measures to increase our ability to carry out innovative and relevant learning initiatives of the highest standard for the UN system. As we continue to learn to live with the pandemic and its effects, the lessons learned over the past few months will remain an integral part of the way this team adapts and evolves.

The opinions expressed in our blog posts are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of UNSSC, the United Nations or its members.