I happened to be going through a box of memorabilia recently – looking for a leadership book that used to sit on a shelf in my office – back when I used to go into an office to work. I did not find the book. I did find a campaign button from 1972 which said: “President Nixon, Now More Than Ever.” I laughed out loud at seeing it, appreciating the irony, given Nixon’s impeachment a year later. Don’t worry, this is not a post about politics. This is about leadership, and about how this world needs to continue to develop better leaders now, more than ever.
Many of our clients believe this. I was recently on a call with a C-Suite leader of a large, well-known company that has been hit hard by the pandemic, the economic downturn, and the continuing social unrest in our world. This company has had to lay off or furlough roughly a third of its workforce. And yet, this organization is continuing to invest in the development of some very key senior leaders. Certainly not as much as they did previously, nor as much as they would like to be doing. However, they are determined to continue to support their key leaders, none of whom have faced anything like this set of circumstances before. In fact, if I step back a bit, I see that most of our clients are doing the same thing, and they are asking us for help.
In the course of working with these leaders, we see that a lot of what they need to do now is not fundamentally different. It is about the business and executing their strategy. The main difference is how to adapt those to the current conditions, to clarify the path through to prosperity on the other side. In these times, there are 4 overarching things that leaders should be doubling down on now, to build and maintain momentum for the business.1. First and perhaps foremost is to remain calm and composed amidst the various storms that surround us.
One of the things that first responders are taught is to a) remain calm themselves and b) spread calm to others that are involved in dangerous or dramatic situations. I experienced this first-hand during a recent session with a senior leadership team that was working through some very hard decisions around people and resources. I witnessed as the tension started to rise in the (virtual) room, with a handful of the team getting visibly agitated over these tough choices. This is normally where the facilitator steps in to calm things down. In this case, though, the CFO beat me to it. First by naming what was going on, second by sharing how hard this was for everyone, and last by reminding everyone of the common goals that the team has for its leadership of the organization. This allowed everyone the time and space to have calmer and more productive deliberations.2. Second is to chart a clear course through and beyond these crises. This is as true for CEOs as it is for front line managers.
Focus on what we do and do not know, now. Involve others in defining what actions give us the best chance of survival and even growth. The top supply chain leader for a global industrial company has exemplified this over the past 8 months. As is the case with so many other supply networks in the pandemic, they experienced many disruptions, some of them quite serious and dramatic. In response, she mobilized her top team, who in turn collaborated with their key suppliers and internal stakeholders to build a plan to minimize the disruption. She then used the organization’s various communication channels to make everyone aware of the plan. This fast action resulted in the company being able to meet almost all of its commitments to customers. It also resulted in the supply chain organization learning new ways of doing their work – that they tell us will last long after the pandemic is past.
3. Third is to communicate with clarity and transparency.
The first two things don’t matter much if you can’t do this part well. A perfect strategy to weather these storms is almost meaningless unless the vast majority of your organization gets it, believes it and acts in concert with it. My favorite example of this is Arne Sorenson, the CEO of Marriott. Early on in the pandemic, he posted this communication to all Marriott associates worldwide. This is literally a masterpiece of executive communication by anyone’s standards. While I’ve never met Mr. Sorenson, I have talked to a number of leaders at Marriott, who expressed their admiration and respect for his continuing leadership. By the way, you don’t have to be the CEO of Marriott to practice this skill. You simply need to share what you do know, what you don’t know and paint a picture for what you want your people to do next.4. Last is to find a way to celebrate wins, big and small.
What your stressed and worn out teams need more than anything is positive news—something good to focus on. This could be as simple as reflecting on the positive effects on our environment from burning less carbon, to one person going the extra mile in service of a client, to the big sale, to any number of good outcomes. The CEO of a growing tech company we work with has exemplified this through his increased use of video communications during the pandemic. This is a big leap for someone who has tended to shy away from the camera in the past. Under COVID, he now regularly broadcasts messages of support across his global organization. These messages include news of big client acquisitions, new software releases and promising alliance partnerships. They also include heavy doses of recognition for people at all levels for outstanding work. In interacting with people from Manila to Manhattan, his teams have shared how important and uplifting these communications are in helping them to weather these storms.
The most important thing for leaders to remember in times like these, is that good leadership – and these four critical fundamentals – are not a one-time early crisis action. Prioritize them now and make them part of how you lead and manage every day.