Leadership In The Time Of COVID-19

Leadership In The Time Of COVID-19

The reality of life post-COVID-19 has not fully sunk in yet, and its consequences for our businesses, organisations, economy, and society will play out over the rest of 2020 and beyond. Right now, we really need sober, smart, values-driven, and focused leadership. Remember the old adage, “Crisis does not build character, it reveals it".

Eighteen months ago, my friend John Hillen and I published a book on leadership titled "What Happens Now?" The book’s core argument is that leaders, even (and especially) highly successful ones, must reinvent and change themselves or risk being outrun by their businesses. No matter how effective you were yesterday, you will find that today and tomorrow are likely to make new and different demands on you as a leader. If you fail to reinvent and adapt, you and your organisation will stall and fail.

There’s no “playbook” for leadership when the stakes are high, and there’s certainly no playbook for what to do in the face of a 21st Century pandemic. We are all facing threats on multiple fronts at once: to self, family, employees, customers, suppliers and business partners, governmental and financial systems, and potentially our social fabric. Even the Dean of the Harvard Business School can only offer a few "good insights for companies facing this new reality", but no silver-bullet solutions.

So, what should you do if you’re responsible for a team, organisation, or company? Following are a few suggestions. 

Educate yourself

First and foremost, educate yourself. This means going beyond just watching the TV news. Don’t get sucked into the melodrama that characterises the media (and especially social media) these days—and don’t project melodrama onto others. Keep an eye on the situation and know how to protect yourself. 

Recognise as well that in business and economic terms, things are changing on a daily or even hourly basis. Today’s realities are quite different than they were on Monday, and vastly different from just last week. Be flexible, be adaptive, and be willing to make difficult choices. Nobody has a crystal ball, but read up on the macroeconomic implications for your business/industry/sector so you can make better decisions. 

What's Most Important?

Next, anchor everything in what’s most important: the safety of everyone you’re responsible for. Ensure that you have clear business protocols and expectations in place and fine-tune them as necessary. Work-from-home is only the first step: what else needs to happen in your organisation for people to feel safe, engaged, informed, and useful? One of my clients, perhaps the toughest CEO you’ll ever meet and leader of an aggressively sales-driven global company, spent the first 20 minutes of his Town Hall on Monday underscoring that what mattered most to him was that his people felt physically and psychologically safe

Build a Clear Plan

At the same time, build a clear plan for your organisation. Several of my CEO clients have urged the importance of “thinking global and acting local”—that is, sketch out plans that are as detailed as possible for the longer-term (at least through the end of 3rd Q), recognising that much will change, but at the same time be extremely focused on your game-plan week-by-week and even day-by-day. Things are changing at an incredible rate. Put together tactical set of steps for this new way of working. Think strategically, conduct (and re-conduct) scenario planning—Plans B, C, and D—and be willing to adapt quickly. 

Leverage your Team

Be sure to leverage your team. You’re not in this alone, you shouldn’t try to be a superhero, and as one of my mentors once noted, “all of us is smarter than any of us.” Bring your team together to ensure alignment on plans, priorities, and contingencies. Engage them in doing that scenario-planning. Work with them to differentiate the truly important from the merely urgent—and help them do the same with their teams. Ask them how they and their families feel, to help ensure everyone is tapping into his emotional intelligence to lead and manage in the right ways. Even in “normal” times, working with remote teams presents extra challenges.

Over-invest in Communication

As my friends and clients hear me say often, “No executive has ever been faulted for over-communication.” You must communicate with credibility and optimism. Be realistic but be positive. With most people now working remotely, set up multiple and new ways to keep in touch. As a leader, pay attention to your communication style and tactics, be deliberate, and be as “visible” as you can possibly be. Set the right type and frequency of communication for your organisation: maybe even a short weekly town hall for the next few weeks? Be clear and specific with your messaging (what do people need to hear?) and don’t be afraid to repeat the key themes. Help people focus on what they can control: this is not a bad time to practice some Stoic leadership.  No executive has ever been faulted for over-communication.

Be Judicious in your Formal Communication

Churchill didn’t do a daily radio address even at the height of the Second World War, and neither should you. While CEO's and other enterprise leaders must ensure that overall company communication is increased, they should not overdo all-hands calls or company-wide e-mails. Rather, drill your direct reports regularly in the right messages about what the company is doing and how their people should be responding, including as things change. All company leaders should be telling the same story, with confidence, compassion, and optimism: how to keep safe, how to work together, and how to ensure that everyone is focused on what’s most essential for the business and its customers. 

Create Connections

Find new ways to create connections. As above, communicate as much as you can, especially informally, and be sure that people can get hold of you: nothing is worse than a leader who fades away when the chips are down. Be available and be comfortable talking about personal concerns as well as the business. If your organisation doesn’t make use of videoconferencing, now is the time to put it in place. Many tools are free (Skype, WhatsApp), and some of the major players in the space (e.g., Microsoft and Google) are currently giving away enterprise conferencing tools in response to COVID-19. Many of my clients have moved to regular videoconferencing over the last few years—and once you get comfortable with it you’ll find it can enhance the sense of engagement and dialogue. 

Be Authentic

Remember to be authentic. Don't forget why people have come to trust and follow you, and tap into your natural persona to create calm and focus. In times of crisis people crave the familiar. Now is not a good time to change your style: you don’t need to be like General Patton or Al Haig (am I dating myself?) to be an effective leader in times of crisis. Don’t hide bad news. Be honest, including saying “I don’t know” if you don’t know. You don’t need to know all the answers—but you should take the time to understand what your people are asking and why they are asking it. 

Don't forget why people have come to trust and follow you, and tap into your natural persona to create calm and focus.

Manage Yourself

Most of all, manage yourself. You’re a human being, and you’re stressed like everyone else—and probably in ways you may not even realise. Don’t let yourself get to the end of your rope. Take the time to make sure you yourself are as prepared and focused as you can be. Stay balanced: get your exercise, eat properly, and make time for the people who are most important to you. Your family and friends need your attention and leadership as much as your employees and customers do.

In Closing

Recently 180 CEOs unanimously agreed that every company must balance the needs of and commitments to all stakeholders—including customers, employees, suppliers, and local communities. If nothing else, the COVID-19 crisis may show us which companies really know how to do this.  

Be a leader of one of those companies. Your employees will remember for a long time how they were treated during this crisis. Nothing drives employee loyalty and engagement more than knowing “my boss cares about me as a human being.” As a leader you should treat this COVID-19 crisis as a defining moment for yourself and your organisation. Step up and lead accordingly.

  • This course makes you aware of your behaviour - excellent practical examples, clear and concise.

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