Yesterday, a CEO client asked me an interesting question: “What is the biggest mistake you see leaders making right now?” As a CEO advisor and executive coach, I’m in regular conversation with clients from a wide range of companies, so it’s given me an opportunity to hear how each is grappling with this extraordinary period in real time.

Leaders have really risen to the occasion, and it’s been encouraging and inspiring to see so many doing the absolute best they can with the best information they have. I have tremendous admiration for how they’ve rallied their teams and jumped into action. 

Add to the fact that even for those companies that are incredibly well prepared for all kinds of disaster scenarios – from recessions to war to loss in leadership – none that I’ve spoken with has a ‘pandemic’ playbook they can dust off and put into action (although many are creating one now).  Everyone is figuring things out and trying to keep the wheels from coming off the bus, while trying to keep their teams focused and customers from abandoning ship. No wonder that it’s easier than ever to make mistakes and lose sight of the leadership lessons they’ve learned over their careers.  Here are a couple I’ve been hearing about.

Adding But Not Subtracting

Most of the leaders I work with are running companies, business units, or leading large functions, like IT or Supply Chain. Even before COVID-19 emerged, they were running at full speed and dealing with the types of challenges you might expect to see: struggles to drive growth or scale, challenges around execution, and delivering results when they are already stretched incredibly thin. It’s not easy on a good day, so when you add corona into the mix, the pressure hits an all-time high. 

No surprise, then, that leaders are putting measures into place to address current challenges. But what isn’t always happening is the removal of activities or tasks to make room for new, urgent priorities.  For example, consider one client who had to quickly pivot the work of her 2500-person organization when a major distribution channel had been shut down due to the coronavirus.  She told me, “I’m working around the clock to address this challenge. In the meantime, I keep getting pulled into meetings with my boss about how we’re going to meet our Q1 number. If I don’t get this distribution channel back on track, we won’t meet any number this year, period. I can’t afford to sit through hours of meetings right now.”

During times of crisis, leaders need the latitude to work only on what is mission-critical.  If that means missing other meetings or a previously-defined objective so what’s absolutely urgent gets addressed, so be it. To be sure, these are not easy trade-offs for any company to make, but what doesn’t work is getting pulled into everything at once. Leaders need time and space to address what is most critical and be trusted and allowed to do so. To do that, they need to hear a message from their own executives and their peers that amounts to, “I trust you to do what is best for our people and our business right now.”  They also need to hear, “I will remove barriers to help you do that.” And even more importantly, they need to give the same message to their teams and model the right behavior. 

Piling On

Equally challenging is a related scenario teams are facing: piling on. All week, I’ve seen teams that have had their sales goals doubled or are asked to deliver an even higher number to their companies than ever before. It’s tempting in tough times to put even more pressure on teams to deliver results. The question for a leader to ask is: is this actually realistic? In an environment where employees are adapting on multiple fronts – from working at home to taking care of kids out of school to simply keeping their own fears at bay – simply showing up and getting work done is an achievement. Expecting employees to hit an ‘above-and-beyond’ number in this environment is landing like a ton of bricks and for many, feels out of touch and tone deaf. For companies that are under pressure to deliver results, the last thing they want to say to employees is, “Do the best you can,” but in this environment, that message may be the most genuine and helpful one that leaders can deliver to employees right now to help them stay calm and focused.

Giving Bad Behavior a Pass

At the end of last week, a manager and his team attended a video call called by a senior executive at the company. The purpose of the call was to provide the executive with an update, and it wasn’t going well.  The call ended with a visibly angry executive telling the manager, “You and your team obviously can’t get this done and I’m sick of discussing your incompetence.” This didn’t resolve the situation, and the manager was left hanging and unmotivated, without a supportive vision to find a way forward. As stressful a time as it is for companies and leaders, we all know that no situation is improved with harsh, angry dialogue, and even a single outburst can erode trust quickly. Now is the time to step up and check yourself, and to call out bad behavior from peers, your own team, or others, to make sure this doesn’t undermine hard work, good focus, and progress against the things that matter.    

While you navigate the environment and lead your own teams forward, pause and make sure you are avoiding these traps. You’ll be better on the other side.




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