As we approach the one year anniversary of the World Health Organization officially declaring Covid-19 a pandemic, to say the past year was difficult would be an understatement. In the short period of time since the novel coronavirus first began spreading across the globe, our lives – both personal and professional – have changed dramatically at a pace that has been exhausting for individuals and businesses alike. As the leader of a small startup, I can say that it has often felt like moving from mini-crisis to mini-crisis without any sort of break, and it is becoming more and more apparent that “back to normal” is not something that will be achievable in the near future.
As a business leader you have to be aware that change is an inevitable part of life, but to lead in the context of significant and unrelenting change is something different entirely. When forces outside of your control are bringing about change to an industry or even the world it can be easy to get caught up in the struggle of adapting to these changes, but it is important to not lose sight of the big picture. Leaders need to establish a balance between prioritizing both the business itself and the people they lead. Focus too heavily on the bottom line and neglecting your people can erode trust and destabilize the culture, generating fear and skepticism among employees at a time when a loyal, enthusiastic, and productive team is essential for your success.
So how can you traverse the rocky road that turbulent times create, making the tough decisions for the business without losing sight of the emotions and concerns of those within the business itself? These are some of the best practices I have found essential to ensuring your business and your status as a good and effective leader weather the storm that is fast and unrelenting change.
Project honesty and confidence
As a leader, it is part of your job to “walk the walk” and be a person people can look to everyday, but also especially in times of crisis. During uncertain times, the leader is who everybody looks to for next steps and reassurance, and just like with a contagious disease if you project unease or insecurity, those feelings will transmit to everybody else as well. This is why it’s so important for you as a leader to maintain a strong appearance of confidence – even if you’re feeling uncertain yourself. You are at the helm of the ship, and those who follow your direction need to be able to feel they can look to you for reliance and reassurance.
While projecting confidence when things are feeling shaky is important, it must be accompanied with honesty. It can be tempting to just tell employees what they want to hear – that everything will be fine and they shouldn’t worry – but doing so will only make things more hard in the future if difficult decisions need to be made. Instead, being honest about the magnitude of the situation will show that you can be trusted to make the right decisions in the long run.
Be decisive and adaptable in decision-making
While it may seem counterintuitive, it is possible to spend too much time contemplating a problem. Yes, research and discussion are important aspects of the decision-making process and I’m in no way saying you should make snap judgements without thoroughly thinking them through, but it is important to recognize when it’s time to stop thinking and act. Often the more you think, the more complicated you make things in your head. The more people you involve or advice you ask for the more opinions you create, clouding your judgement. During uncertain times you will often be faced with difficult decisions, and by being decisive you appear confident and keep your business moving forward instead of paralyzing it with your indecisions.
It is also important to remain adaptable, even as the turbulence can make you want to become ridgid. Adaptability is closely linked to resilience and perseverance, two traits that are essential in navigating uncertainty, and by being adaptable you give yourself the ability to keep going even when things get tough. Maintaining an open mind within the decision-making process will aid in your ability to make quick decisions, contributing to your success weathering the unknown.
Utilize your business’s principles
As hard as you may work to be decisive, when you are constantly thrown into new and unfamiliar scenarios every day it is inevitable that at some point you will find yourself stumped. You or your team won’t have the luxury of textbook solutions for every challenge you face, and frankly it’s impossible to anticipate everything. Even if you did initially set up a strategy for every possible eventuality ahead of time, the nature of the markets would mean that they would become obsolete almost immediately. When you inevitably find yourself stumped by a decision, looking at your company’s mission statement, ethics, and roadmap are all great principles that can be used to guide the decision-making process.
Focusing on principles is not only an effective way to strategize, but also communicate with your team as to the reasoning behind your decisions. As your business’s principles should always be on the forefront of their minds, putting decisions in those terms can help them easily understand where you’re coming from, leading to less confusion and also enabling them to in turn respond to situations more confidently and effectively when you aren’t around.
Be courageous, but acknowledge your own limitations
Even if you do all of the things I have written about previously, you will inevitably make mistakes during these times of uncertainty. Deep crises such as this require risk-taking and ongoing decision making, and it would be unrealistic to expect that you won’t stumble during the entire ordeal. The best leaders take personal ownership, even though many factors lie outside of our control. They align team focus, establish new metrics to monitor performance, and create a culture of accountability that they themselves adhere to. When you make a mistake, own up to it quickly and humbly. By remaining realistic about what you can and can’t accomplish, you better set both your own expectations and that of your employees, investors, and customers.
Times of uncertainty are not for the faint-hearted, but it is important to remain kind to yourself through this process. Remember that having courage does not mean that you feel no fear, but that you continue to take action and move forward in spite of the fear. It is one thing to know what is necessary in turbulent times, but it is another thing altogether to have the courage to step out and do it, knowing that the choices you make may create some resistance.
Although it’s a new year, we are still facing many of the challenges that we experienced in 2020. If you find yourself feeling like the time has simultaneously flown by and dragged on unendingly, know that you are not alone. Hopefully as we round the corner of a year in a pandemic you have already been practicing many of the ideas I outlined above, but it’s never too late to work on managing more effectively. We are currently in turbulence and the end of it doesn’t appear to be near at this time, but if you stay sharp, stay decisive and stay humble, you can help your business not only survive uncertainty, but come out the other end stronger because of it.