Leadership in time of COVID-19

April 27, 2020
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The reality of life post-COVID-19 has not fully sunk in yet, and its consequences for our businesses, organizations, 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.”

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, organization, or company?  Following are a few suggestions.

Educate yourself

This means going beyond just watching the TV news.  Don’t get sucked into the melodrama that characterizes the media (and especially social media) these days—and don’t project melodrama onto others. One good source to monitor is the Daily Situation Report from the World Health Organization (WHO). The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website has pragmatic advice on how to protect yourself as well as interim guidance for businesses and employers.

Recognize that things are changing

Today’s realities are quite different than they were yesterday, 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.

Ensure 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 organization for people to feel safe, engaged, informed, and useful? Making people feel safe is one of your most important jobs as a leader.

Build a clear plan for your organization

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 third quarter), recognizing 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 a 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. If you ever wondered what “VUCA” really looks like, this is it.

Leverage your team

You’re not in this alone, you shouldn’t try to be a superhero. 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

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 organization:  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.

Find new ways to create connections

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 organization 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.

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.

Manage yourself

You’re a human being, and you’re stressed like everyone else—and probably in ways you may not even realize.  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.

As a closing:  Be a caring leader. 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 organization. Step up and lead accordingly.

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