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Drawing on new muscles when entering an unknown territory

Invaluable lessons in leadership are learned through flexing new muscles.

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Shutterstock

As a new CEO, I came into 2020 with big plans and a strategy in place to execute the transformation of a 15-year-old global company. But as many of us know, the best-laid plans don’t always work out.

With the onset of a global pandemic, I, along with other leaders, had to quickly pivot to manage the crisis and maintain business continuity while the entire ecosystem learned to navigate unknown territory. I’ve always believed that companies need to look after their people first and foremost and in these moments of uncertainty, ensuring that my employees understand the path they are on is especially important to me.

As a result, I’ve had to flex on new muscles over the last few months (or muscles that were there, but I hadn’t had to use as regularly) to make sure that the company, its employees, board and stakeholders, all come out of in good shape.

This has led to invaluable lessons in leadership – from addressing the people who look to me for reassurance with compassion to leaning into vulnerability and acting with resolve – here are three of my favorites.

Embracing Vulnerability

From day one, I’ve committed to setting a clear course and making sure that everyone knows their role in it – from a simple story to a new mission and values. When the crisis began, it was critical that the company held on tight to that direction in order to keep moving. As we navigate, we may have to change course, but it needs to be done as a tight unit. It also means that the values become more critical than ever to promote team spirit and this requires me as the leader to be vulnerable, putting myself in a position where I can earn the trust of the team to let them know we’ll be okay.

I often get the question, “have you ever been through anything like this before?” And the truth is no – I don’t really know of anyone that has. But, in the past few months, the key for me has been about balancing business skills with human skills. We’re nothing without our people and I have a business to run. For employees, I have worked hard to overcommunicate, to be transparent and approachable, and to promote kindness to each other so that we trust each other. And for my shareholders, I need to read the tea leaves well, and make quick but smart decisions to ride the waves successfully.

Leading with Compassion

I pride myself in always leading with compassion, and in the scenario that we find ourselves in today, making sure that everyone who works in our organization is safe and secure has been especially top of mind.

With 2,700 employees across the world now working remotely, it’s been much more difficult to get a temperature read on sentiment. And while I’ve always been a heavy communicator, I will admit that it has been challenging without face-to-face interactions. As a result, we’ve set up all sorts of mechanisms to try to get a pulse on the mental wellbeing of our people such as counseling services. We’ve been able to monitor the number of calls coming in and how that number has fluctuated as an indication of whether our people feel supported. It’s also been helpful to gauge whether the business is running as it has been in the past and if we’re still productive and focused.

In a recent company-wide all hands meeting, I made the last-minute decision to throw away my notes and speak from the heart. It’s been an incredible experience to have to adjust what I perceived as my strength – communicating – and really put pressure on myself to check-in on the ways I communicate in order to keep our people safe, focused and informed.

Acting with Decisiveness

Right now, what we all have in common is that we can’t predict the future. We have no idea what’s going to come and so I’ve had to get comfortable with shooting in the dark. We’re lucky that we have an incredible amount of data that allows us to build out different scenarios of what could possibly happen, but eventually, I’ve had to choose one option and then make decisions on how to move forward in running the business based on it.

It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve adjusted to making well-calculated calls to drive the business forward and toward our goals. The decisions that we make and the shape of the landscape coming out of the pandemic will shape our company, watching for those shifts and responding to them is something that I’m used to – doing it with less information and facts draws on knowledge and intuition.

Stepping into completely unknown territory can be scary, but as a leader, it’s our responsibility to put our employees first and to draw on all muscles to ensure that the business can continue running and that the people feel safe and supported. The key is to stay calm, cool and collected with everything you do and to encourage transparency, communication and flexibility across your teams. We don’t know what the future looks like, but I do know we’ll get through – we’re here for the long run.

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