As a leader facing the coronavirus challenge, you need to manage on three distinct fronts: keeping your business going, taking care of your people and doing both of those things completely virtually. This needs to be done in two stages. First you need to bring stability, and then you need to turn the crisis into an opportunity.
Creating stability. During a crisis, it’s natural to have an “all hands-on deck” response. In this one, however, leaders confront a fundamental paradox: how to get people to act together while keeping them apart. The challenges are big, perhaps even existential: disrupted supply chains, plummeting demand and frightened employees. Challenges of this magnitude require a rapid, comprehensive response and this requires people to come together, yet do so in isolation – from their leaders and each other.
Here are a few things to keep in mind as you do this:
First, in times of crisis, people look to their leaders for guidance. This means you must be clear, transparent and regular in your communications. Especially if you are working virtually, they need to hear from you. Let them know the types of information you will share, the timing, the communication methods, and the frequency. If you don’t know yet, say that, but also tell them when you will know or how you will come to a decision. No information leads to instability – people will try to guess what is happening.
Second, remember that you have to be more visible during times of instability and rapid change. Make sure you are not spending all of your meeting with others at the top. It not only signals that things are really bad; it sends the message there is an in group and out group and it’s inevitably demotivating to be in the out group. So spread your attention across and throughout the organization. Let everyone know you are thinking about them and that you care. Furthermore, ensure that all leaders reporting to you also think about how to support and communicate with their teams.
Third, develop even more structured routines for your team and your organization. Structure provides a sense of security, which is critical during crises. Figure out fast which of your ways of working still make sense, and which ones need to be adjusted to provide more of a sense of control and continuity.
Fourth, recognize and directly address the fear and isolation factors. Your people are going through major upheaval. They may be scared of catching the virus, they may have parents or relatives at risk, they may have young children who are not in school, and they may be separated from family members. They also might not be used to working from home so therefore must create new space, develop new rhythms, use new software and communicate differently. Some of your workers may appreciate this change, but others may feel isolated and vulnerable, especially if this situation continues for a long time. Others may be fearful of losing their jobs. Many may be grieving – perhaps the project that they have been working for a long time as been canceled or a loved one is ill. As a leader, you need to be able to check in with your team and team members to understand their situations. Don’t assume that everyone is ok because you have not heard otherwise. Leaders often overestimate that their direct reports will tell them if something is wrong. Checking in and signaling interest and availability must be active. The more diverse and dispersed your team is, the more active this must be.
Fifth, be sure to ask for help because you cannot find the best solutions on your own. In a crisis, your direct reports will want to help, but you need to be able to state what you need. For example, if you have a challenge and need their ideas, tell them that. Say, “I need your input identifying and evaluating options so I can make the best decision”. The decision-making process should always be clear. Tell them who decides. Is it them, you, or the leadership team? Clarity around decision-making gives stability.
Turn the crisis into an opportunity. Once you have provided stability and addressed immediate priorities, it is time to get people to focus on the new future. Covid-19 has the potential to disrupt the products and services you offer and how the work itself is done. This is an opportunity to focus on the new possibilities this creates for the business. Are there new products/services, target audiences or delivery mechanisms? Is this also an opportunity to clean house in terms of discarding unprofitable and less profitable products and services from the portfolio? What new business models are now more attractive? How can we improve our way of working? Are there advantages of working in this virtual manner? What do individuals and the team need to do to make it better? Having people propose improvements and new ideas and set new goals will bring energy and momentum to your business. It will set you up to come out of the crisis stronger.
Equally important, development and learning should not be put on hold. This crisis is a unique opportunity to set concrete short-term learning goals. Ask your people, what do they most want to learn through this experience? What skills or content area do they want to learn or upgrade? What opportunities are available? Everyone should be planning for life after the pandemic. Taking time to have meaningful development talks builds trust and loyalty. It is an act of caring.
Finally, it is critical for you to model this behavior and to encourage all your team leads to do the same. If the part of the organization you lead is going to maintain intact, this type of visible, compassionate, forward thinking leadership needs to cascade through the organization.
In summary, first help people adjust to the new normal and then focus attention on bringing energy to new projects, and team and individual development so that your company emerges from this crisis in the strongest position possible.