After Covid-19: The Rise of HR Changemakers (Interview)
After Covid-19: The Rise of HR Changemakers (Interview)

Many companies have now stabilised in the face of Covid-19. But any short-term fixes implemented during the lockdown must be revised in order to become sustainable long-term. The second phase of adaptation is even more daunting than the first.

To help HR and L&D leaders strategise effectively for the future, MERIT invited a group of corporate and academic experts to share their perspectives.

Here, Alex Budak, faculty at the Haas School of Business, University of California Berkeley (US), shares research-based lessons on becoming an effective changemaker at your company. Alex explains how to adopt а mindset of “dispositional flexibility” and why the meaning of resilience is often misunderstood. Read on for his tips on letting go of past successes and processes in order to face up to the future.


CHROs and CLOs are facing so many challenges right now. They are managing daily operations during unprecedented disruption, while also thinking about long-term adaptation. What leadership principles can they employ in order to keep people engaged and successfully steer their organizations through the crisis?

Changemakers learn to see opportunities in challenge, and there is no shortage of potential opportunities ahead as we navigate these unprecedented times. But before we can innovate and create new paths forward, we must also steer our organisations through uncharted waters. 

The key here is practising empathy in our communications — putting ourselves in the shoes of employees and crafting messages specifically for them and where they are. Difficult as it may be, we must step away from our own stresses and pressures and communicate with a focus on employees’ concerns.

Patti Sanchez, Chief Strategy Officer at Duarte, found in her research that 50% of executives fail to consider their team’s feelings when it comes to change. Don’t be that type of leader. Instead, be a changemaker who thinks first about your employees and their perspectives and then leads from this place of empathetic understanding.


Read more: After Covid-19: Speed Up Digital Transformation or Face Extinction (Interview)


How can HR and L&D leaders develop a changemaker mindset in these uncertain times? How can they help others adopt such a mindset?

A changemaker mindset helps us navigate these uncertain times by giving us tools and approaches for leading positive change. A good place to start is focusing on flexibility because of how rapidly the world is changing right now.

Psychologist Steve Zaccaro has spent his career studying adaptability and has identified three types of flexibility great leaders possess. As we feel the fear of uncertainty creeping in, “dispositional flexibility” will be a powerful tool for us. Put simply, dispositional flexibility is the ability to find optimism while being grounded in reality. Two paths are most common when people face overwhelmingly scary and uncertain futures: fear-based pessimism (“the world as we know it is over,”) or blind optimism (“a little flu can’t stop us from partying!”).  

Applying dispositional flexibility allows us to survive amidst ambiguity. It allows us to honestly recognise that yes, this situation is scary, while simultaneously believing in a brighter tomorrow (which we can help create). It means taking the necessary precautions, while remembering that there is still lots of good in the world and that our actions are the antidote to despair. It’s looking for opportunities to help others instead of reasons to admit defeat.

While we will all experience this crisis in different ways based on our identities and situations, we can all nurture this changemaker trait. Lean into the ambiguity and find a balance between optimism and the current set of challenges.


Read more: After Covid-19: “Help People to Create the New Normal” (Interview)


What are some leadership mistakes or misconceptions HR and L&D leaders should avoid?

The biggest mistake I’m seeing right now is exhibited by leaders desperately trying to maintain the status quo when the world is changing so drastically around us. Jobs, functions, and even entire industries are changing before our eyes. We need to evolve with it. 

Look, for instance, at the airline industry. In a pre-Covid world, the focus was on operations, supply chains, logistics, and customer service. Right now? Leaders and employees must focus on negotiating government bailouts and hustling for business (like shipping cargo or rescuing stranded citizens on behalf of nation states).

The key skills which were valued and rewarded just two months ago are now completely different. We must not remain stubbornly committed to what we did until recently — our roles and our leadership must adapt to face this new reality. We must see our organisations and our own roles through the lens of changemaking — how might we lead positive change from where we are right now, rather than remaining wedded to past successes and processes?


Should corporate learning and corporate culture initiatives take a back seat? If not, how should they change? What should people be learning right now, and how can HR and L&D deliver it under the current constraints?

In the class I developed and teach at UC Berkeley, “Becoming a Changemaker,” we talk a lot about resilience — a key changemaker mindset trait. Too often, resilience is thought of simply as enduring as much pain as possible. This is misleading and potentially dangerous to our minds and bodies. Instead, I define resilience as “staying strong for the long haul.”  Resilience is actually an intentional practice which includes endurance, yes, but which also elevates learning, growth, development, and leading with purpose. We must always invest in ourselves and in our teams’ growth — and especially so when facing a great challenge. 

There’s never been a more important time in recent memory to enable employees to further develop and expand their skills and adapt to challenging, changing market conditions. And cultivating culture is more important than ever given the uncertainties we are all facing. Creating an adaptive and resilient culture will keep employees engaged, inspired, and productive as we navigate this crisis and lay the foundation for what’s next.

Responding to the need for strong and adaptive leadership in these times, Berkeley Executive Education has developed a new online series called Leading Through Crisis that provides the most current thinking from my faculty colleagues at Berkeley Haas across a wide range of areas including leadership, culture, and innovation. I created a video for the series titled, "Becoming a Changemaker in a Time of Uncertainty” which expands on some of the ideas I’ve shared here. You’ll find a diverse array of powerful and applicable insights in the collection of videos. I hope you find them helpful!


Read more: After Covid-19: How to Rebuild Learning and Development (Interview)


How are you personally responding to the crisis? What do you find helpful and motivating in your work? How do you connect with your purpose?

One of the surprising benefits I’ve found in this crisis is that when there are so many macro-level changes all around us, it’s actually making it easier for me to make micro changes. That’s because the perceived “switching costs” of moving from one behaviour or habit to another feel so much smaller when compared with the massive level of change overall.

On a small level, this means pushing myself out of my comfort zone to try new things — with gyms closed, I’ve taken up running on empty trails instead (proof that not all change is enjoyable…)

Finally, I’ve been taking to heart the words of Joan Baez: “Action is the antidote to despair.” As we watch the news and refresh our social media feeds it’s easy to become fearful and hopeless at the scale of the challenge before us.

Yet I believe nothing spurs a reframing of fear more than taking action. We must not let fear get in the way. It’s not the size of the action that matters here – it’s simply doing something. Do something today, if for no other reason than to give yourself an alternative to despair. And if not for yourself, take action for someone else who might need to see you doing it so that they have reason to be less afraid.

Action is the antidote to despair. I’m consciously choosing to take more small actions to support others and I encourage you to join me.


Alex Budak, UC Berkeley Haas School of Business

Alex Budak is a social entrepreneur and professional faculty member at Berkeley Haas School of Business and Berkeley Executive Education. Alex created and teaches a transformative course called “Becoming a Changemaker,” and is Executive Director of the Berkeley Haas Global Access Program. He co-founded and now advises the social enterprise, which has helped over 1,000 changemakers in 50 countries raise over $10 Million USD.


To discover more about transformational change in HR and L&D, claim your complimentary pass to the MERIT European Summit in Paris, 18 September – “Rethinking Learning in a Connected World”. This boutique event for CHROs and CLOs is co-hosted by LinkedIn. Places are limited – reserve yours now.