In my conversations with clients over the past weeks, all are focused on the same three things: the health and safety of their employees, maintaining business continuity and managing costs while preserving cash. Addressing any of the three is a tall order even in good times. Adding in the many COVID-related activities creates a crushing schedule and unbelievably long days for nearly all. 

Given that, it is no surprise that senior leaders lack the time, appetite and bandwidth to address other priorities, even those deemed as critical only months ago. It really does seem like just yesterday when topics like digital transformation, automation and disruption dominated the landscape.  Companies spoke regularly about the need to develop the workforce of the future. Inclusion and diversity became even more elevated strategic priorities. Top CEOs from around the world committed to lead their companies to benefit all stakeholders, not only shareholders.  At the organization or team level, leaders focused on agility, accelerating execution, and doing more to drive growth and improve efficiencies.

Given that, how can companies and teams continue to advance their efforts in key areas like these during COVID-19, when resources and dollars are being redirected and cost-cutting is high priority?  Equally important, what can leaders do to rally employees to advance initiatives when it is next to impossible to get mindshare for anything but coronavirus right now? Temporarily putting certain initiatives on hold may be necessary, but chances are that if you do, the likelihood of them simply treading water and holding steady is low.

Here is what we know from the research. During times of crisis or high stress, it is very easy for leaders and organizations to default to old patterns and behaviors and quickly undo years of progress. It’s unfortunate, particularly when you consider how much time, employee effort and real dollars were committed to those initiatives in the first place. Even for employees who may understand why their resources are getting cut, it is frustrating and demotivating to feel like months of hard work has gone out the window in just a matter of weeks.

The good news is that we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Corporate initiatives and company priorities can advance, even now. To do this, leaders must dispel a common myth that essentially amounts to:  we don’t have time/money/resources to focus on the development of our leaders/transformation /new strategy with everything happening right now. 

Instead, consider simple actions to take that provide opportunities to advance, even now.

First, see this moment as offering a unique window to progress and advance.

In spite of all the uncertainty and difficulty, this moment in our history presents an important opportunity for companies to elevate their workforce, improve leader performance and advance company culture.  For example, CEOs and senior executives can become more transparent and authentic with employees and strengthen trust with them in the process. People leaders can seize the moment to reinforce agility and drive accountability with improved decision-making, communication, and role clarity.  Sales leaders can strengthen trusted relationships with customers and add value when no transaction is likely to occur.  CEOs can reinforce culture by deliberately speaking to those aspects of their company DNA that enable employees to succeed in spite of challenges. 

Integrate small, simple action into your existing day-to-day activities.

It is easy to assume that honoring previous commitments requires extra work or more time. In some cases, that may be true, but consider how many best practices can be easily woven into your current operating rhythm, current meeting cadence or other daily activities.  Consider one senior leader overseeing a major sales transformation initiative. He had spent months implementing a global program focused on building trusted advisor relationships with C-level clients.  Recognizing the current environment for his people and his clients, he simply asked his team to integrate transformation tools, strategies, and concepts they had already adopted into their client outreach and communication into whatever current client interaction is happening.  Another leader was struggling to accelerate the implementation of a new strategy and operating model across her finance organization. The culprit was not COVID-19, in her view, but rather, the fact that employees weren’t seeing or experiencing the benefits of the progress that had already been made. Quickly, she assembled her leadership team, and together they came up with tangible, quantifiable benefits to the new operating model that they could communicate to help the rest of the team better understand how progress was happening.

To move the needle, identify concrete actions or leadership behaviors that can be immediately applied.

 If you want to make progress against any initiative at scale, start by identifying a few practical, concrete actions or leadership behaviors that can be applied right now. This starts at the executive level, so that actions can be defined, cascaded across the company, and translated to apply to employees at all levels. Here’s a tip. Be sure to identify concrete actions or behaviors that are within the sphere of influence and control of your employees, such as better communication about the status of a project or maintaining a commitment to speak personally with key customers by a certain time frame. To gain traction, point out when you see that behavior in action in whatever situation you’re in, whether that’s in a client interaction, team meeting or status update, so the impact can be felt and multiplied. 

If there is a silver lining to the coronavirus, it’s that this crisis is providing an opportunity to advance our initiatives, people and leaders in unique ways that can move the needle forward. But it won’t just happen automatically. Leaders must be deliberate and intentional about how to identify and integrate high leverage actions into their operating rhythm right now and believe that by doing so, they can advance and progress in spite of what’s happening.

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