Leaders and communicators face an extraordinary set of fast-moving challenges today. If you haven’t learned any lessons about leadership during the storms of 2020, then you’re not paying attention.
We still have a long way to go in 2020, but here are ideas to inspire and inform.
1) Be Flexible and Keep Moving – Remember all those carefully laid strategic plans for 2020? The pandemic put them on ice. The best leaders made swift decisions to move major events online, and keep employees and customers safe. In the early stages, smart CEOs connected with their executive teams or crisis task forces daily to gather insight and make decisions. Many leaders are still hosting weekly meetings because the storm clearly has not passed. While many meetings waste time, well-structured sessions dramatically speed the pace of change, creating a stronger, more accountable culture.
2) Stay Visible – The pandemic and the widespread protests against racism have created tremendous uncertainty for business leaders. A major risk is that your organization is paralyzed by uncertainty. Leaders compound that problem by remaining silent. Executives don’t have to rush to their webcam with all the answers. In fact, being humble about what you don’t know allows you to ask your team for patience and understanding. Executives do need to step up, be visible and provide hope. Explain what’s happening in your organization and what the issues mean for your people. If you haven’t made decisions about how and when you will restore full operations, explain who is responsible and how they will make the call. Treat your employees like adults. The “mushroom method” (‘Keep ‘em in the dark and feed ‘em a lot of crap’) doesn’t work during a crisis.
3) Celebrate – Your people are stressed. Moms and Dads are caring for kids, worrying about their jobs, concerned about aging parents, protecting the health of family members, and working overtime to stay safe and healthy. Saying thank you and celebrating accomplishments is one of the easiest, most valuable and under-used steps leaders can take. It’s as simple as what one communications leader recently did with her team. During their regular Zoom meeting, she highlighted specific work from each member of the team, acknowledged how it had helped win and keep clients, and said, “Thank you.” A pat on the back—even a virtual one—goes a long way in building culture and commitment.
There are also some “What were they thinking?” moments. For example:
4) Avoid Mixed Messages – This may be obvious, but apparently not to all. For example, a firm called their employees together online to celebrate its record-setting financial performance, despite the pandemic. Great news. But, they also announced a wage freeze and limited bonuses, typically a big share of compensation. Leaders later announced big promotions for a few senior executives. For some employees, it was a kick in the gut. The message they heard was, “Great job. Nothing for you but plenty of perks and pay for us at the top. Keep working hard.” Leadership messages in moments like these are tricky in the best of circumstances. Avoid mixed messages that undermine your credibility.
5) Rethink Zoom Terminations – Another firm faced a huge challenge at the outset of the pandemic when revenue in a business unit collapsed. Layoffs were unavoidable. But instead of handling them individually by phone, leaders decided to invite 100 soon-to-be-terminated people to a Zoom meeting. Then another 100 employees were invited to separate call to learn that they were being furloughed or cut to part-time status. Part of the rationale was that leadership didn’t want word to leak about the layoffs before they happened. But they may have created a long-term challenge that leaves their remaining staff wondering about how much leaders truly respect them and value their service. Treat others with the same respect and dignity that you’d want to receive.
6) Hold That Thought – When a business is struggling, it’s a terrible idea to announce cuts before you have a plan. One business leader recently warned her organization of more layoffs ahead. But she shared nothing else. Hundreds of people are left to speculate about who will be terminated, when, and how the decisions will be made. She left her audience hanging, worried that all of their jobs are at risk. It’s important to be transparent. But leaders don’t need to share their every thought, especially if you’re not ready to explain about how your people will be affected.
Here is one more idea for leaders.
Stay-at-home orders and new travel risks have reduced the time wasted racing through airports and increased the available time for long-term thinking. One CEO told me he is using this new-found time to game-plan future risks and opportunities. He’s also hosting online roundtables with employees, giving him fresh perspective from the front line of his business. It’s been energizing for him and for his teams.
This has been a crisis-filled year, and we still have six months to go. It’s an opportunity to lead your teams, show respect and drive change as you weather the storm. Make the most of it, and let me know how I can help.