Leading through the COVID-19 crisis has been challenging for most of us.
We’ve made it through the emergency phase and now we’re trying to adapt to this new reality and figure out how to keep business moving forward. It’s tricky (and a new kind of stressful) to reassure our team members in uncertain times.
Now, as we head into reopening businesses beyond essential services in the weeks and months ahead (depending on where you are located), the challenge is figuring out what leading your team will look like after the crisis.
Many of our clients are feeling the pressure from trying to meet people’s expectations that they will have answers that they have no way of knowing right now. Change is hard for some people even in the best of times, so trying to lead change right now can be particularly fraught with tension.
One of our amazing coaches recently showed me an article about leadership in a permanent crisis that was in the Harvard Business Review. Interestingly, the article was from 2009 and the permanent crisis it was referring to was the economic collapse of 2008. But, while it’s 11 years old and was written in response to an economic crisis, this HBR article has many insights that really resonate during our current global pandemic.
Here are some ideas to help give your team direction even when you’re not sure about how to move forward:
Reset rather than settle for short-term fixes
In times of uncertainty, it’s human nature to want to cling to the familiar. Many leaders are tempted to just hunker down and solve problems with short-term fixes. It is possible to get through a crisis by drawing on what we’ve done before. Essentially, this is to make it through so we can then continue our old ways.
The challenge is that the skills that brought many of us to senior leadership roles – analytical problem solving, confident decision making, articulating clear and decisive direction – can get in the way of success – particularly in times of enormous uncertainty. Those skills might be helpful in the early moments of a crisis but relying on them keeps us in “hunker down” mode. They help us survive the crisis, but they don’t help us reset.
Why is that a potential problem? The HBR article uses a heart attack as a brilliant analogy. If you have a heart attack and are saved through the heroic measures of EMTs and cardiology experts, you have survived the initial emergency by the experts carefully doing what they’ve always been trained to do. They get you through the initial crisis. However, if you breathe a sigh of relief and go back to your usual ways of eating, not exercising, etc., you will have won the battle but not the war. Unless you know how to prevent another heart attack by adapting your diet and exercise then the crisis is far from over.
Now is the time for adaptive agile leadership. We can use the turbulence to build on and reset. This might include changing key rules of the game, reshaping parts of the organization and redefining the work people do. This isn’t a “reorg” for the sake of shaking things up because conservation is as much a part of a reset as change. Nevertheless, there will be losses. EMPATHY WILL BE ESSENTIAL because you need people’s help (but not their blind loyalty).
Maintaining the right balance of urgency and criticality, without pushing people past their capacity, also requires depersonalizing conflict. This is a topic we talk about a lot at Padraig.
There has to be a lot of conflict around ideas and challenging each other’s thinking if we’re to change the culture, shift patterns, adapt our leadership thoughts and style. This requires depersonalizing conflict and building productive conflict in the workplace.
The aim is to disagree on issues and challenge each other to broader thinking, different thinking while trusting each other to not make it personal, nor to take it personally. You have to understand the interests behind a perspective – the fears, aspirations and the loyalties that are being maintained and the factions that have formed. All of that requires knowing each other and using emotional intelligence.
A critical part of emotional intelligence is vulnerability, which helps to build trust. Building vulnerability-based trust is essential to depersonalize conflict.
Find your sea legs
If you’ve ever been on board a ship, especially on stormy seas, you know that a regular gait won’t help you navigate on deck. You have to adapt your walk to the rise and fall of the waves if you don’t want to fall over. Similarly, in these uncertain times, we have to embrace disequilibrium and find a new way forward.
Difficult change generally requires sparking urgency in folks – but too much distress can trigger the fight, flight or freeze response – and we don’t want any of those. It’s a fine line of maintaining urgency and criticality, while not freaking people out. It can be helpful to remember and to remind your staff that while we’ll be operating outside our comfort zone, it’s not outside our capable zone.
Building on disequilibrium also means shifting from grand and detailed strategic plans to instead running numerous experiments of what might work going forward, given our new and uncertain future.
An idea we like and that you might consider as you review your plan for going forward, is that a strategic plan should be less a collection of goals and more a collection of hypotheses. That’s an idea that first began circulating in earnest in 2017 after articles from Amy Edmondson and Paul Verdin, both professors of management.
It might sound like a simple shift in wording but the idea brings a change of mindset. When you’re struggling to map out the short- and medium-term when everything feels so uncertain, it somehow feels easier, and smarter, to draft some hypotheses you’re going to explore and work toward (and adjust, as needed) then to pronounce on goals you’re going to achieve. And yet, it still gives plenty of guidance to your staff, on where you’re trying to go and how you’re thinking of getting there.
Edmondson and Verdin call this approach “strategy as learning,” which contrasts sharply with the view of strategy as a stable, analytically rigorous plan for execution in the market. Strategy as learning is an executive activity characterized by ongoing cycles of testing and adjusting, fueled by data that can only be obtained through trial.
Perhaps what is most striking is what Edmondson and Verdin call the key indicator of a strategy-as-learning approach which is, how managers interpret early signs of gaps between results and plans. Are the gaps seen as evidence that people are underperforming and that we’re failing? Or as data that indicates some initial assumptions were flawed or have since become flawed (perhaps because of the arrival of a global pandemic, for example), triggering amendments and further refinement?
Build leadership in others
Building leadership is a critical task of leaders at all times, but never more so than in a crisis and following a crisis. An important strategy for adaptive leadership is to find and build strength throughout the organization, rather than keeping the hierarchical status quo to eventually breathe a sigh of relief that the crisis is over.
Organizations that adapt in a crisis usually succeed not through one brilliant new initiative dreamed up at HQ, but rather through multiple smaller ideas, hypotheses, experiments and adaptations by people throughout the organization. That means mobilizing everyone, encouraging people to try new things with common sense and analysis, without fear of being criticized for trying.
This means leaders have to let go of their own sense of obligation that they must be all and do all and get comfortable sharing the burden, being vulnerable, saying, “I don’t know but I’d appreciate your insight.” It means finding the emotional courage to make mistakes and learn from them.
As leaders, our primary goals become ensuring information is being shared, ideas are being discussed and new initiatives are attempted. The goal is for folks at all levels of the organization to feel supported, trusted and to take ownership, no matter where they are in the hierarchy, for creating value in the organization.
Take care of yourself first
We’ve all heard it on a flight: “put your own mask on first, before helping another person.” This is based on the rather obvious, but often forgotten idea, that if you aren’t healthy and functioning, or if you don’t survive the crisis, then you have no hope of helping others to survive.
Find a friend, mentor or coach with whom you can speak frankly, honestly and directly – to share your fears, explore ideas and sometimes to rant, rave or let yourself go. Ideally this isn’t someone in your organization who may someday end up facing you with an opposite view or a conflicting priority. The key in choosing someone for this particular role is that they care more about you than about the issues you’re raising.
Find a retreat – somewhere you can be alone with your thoughts from time to time. I don’t mean booking a week-long retreat at a spa ranch — though if you can manage that, then all the power to you. But, if you’re home during the pandemic, sharing space with a spouse, kids, parents, pets – maybe your retreat is the bathroom, maybe it’s the garage or perhaps a walk around the block. Visit your retreat space from time to time to ask yourself questions a coach might ask you, such as – “How am I feeling?” “Am I pushing myself too hard? Am I pushing others too hard?” “Am I pushing enough to keep us on a path forward?” “Am I being the leader I want to be through this?” “Am I building other leaders by being open, honest and vulnerable with my staff and peers?” etcetera.
Ask yourself if you’re being optimistic or pessimistic, are you being realistic or cynical? Try asking yourself, “If I were being optimistic and still realistic, without letting myself become pessimistic and cynical, what would I be thinking about this situation? What would I be doing about it?”
We’ve thrown a lot of ideas and a lot of questions at you today. What resonates for you? What can you start doing to prepare yourself and your team for what the future months hold?