Leadership in the Coronavirus Era

From Eric Swenson's Leadership Blog


The Coronavirus (also known as COVID-19) truly defines uncertainty for every business and every person. No one can predict what’s going to happen, how long it’s going to last, or what the real impact will be.

What I know is right now the impact is significant and in many different ways. I’ve had hospitality clients lay off significant numbers of their employees. Many non-profits are closing down, and the ones that are open (because they’re an ‘essential business’ are navigating waters they’ve never navigated before.

Most families today are two-income families. With kids home, that means one parent has to take off work. And despite the increase in work from home, there’s not a lot a person can work on when they’re taking care of the kids.

The impact, of course, is not limited to business. We are all worried about our jobs, family, friends and associations.

This extraordinary time sees three related crises all at once. This isn’t just an economic crisis; it’s a health crisis, an economic crisis, and ultimately a crisis of the unknown: what will it look like when it’s over. And all three are of a scale never seen before.

As a leadership and workforce strategist, part of the strength I bring to the table is I’ve “been there/done that”.  I’ve either done it, witnessed it, or led it in my 30-year career. But nothing in our lifetimes compares to this.

There are extraordinary demands on leaders in every avenue.

So what is a leader to do? My guidance is – do what all leaders are supposed to do in normal times – and, do it on steroids.

My guidance is – do what all leaders are supposed to do in normal times – and, do it on steroids.

It’s all about communication

Even in the best of times, I’ve never seen an employee survey where the results said, “there’s too much communication.” Now is the time to over-communicate. Even if you don’t know the answer, communicate that. (Any response is better than no response at all.)

That means frequent one-to-group communication (e-mails, video conferencing, virtual coffees and happy hours).  It means saying “here’s what I know, and here’s when I’m going to get back to you”.

People are nervous. They need to hear from you.

And when there’s bad news, be upfront and immediate with it. Don’t hide bad news. I have a client with a very successful business in the hospitality industry. He realized early on that he was going to have to lay off employees (about half of his team). He realized that on the evening of Thursday, March 5 (well before the restaurants shutdowns and quarantines). He texted me early the next morning, I gave him my thoughts and potential strategies. By noon, he addressed all his employees, preparing them for bad news. On Monday, March 9, he gave the bad news to everyone. Nothing was sugarcoated or delayed. As soon as he knew, he made sure his employees knew.

You are always on stage.

Your people take their cues from you. If you are calm and thoughtful, you’ll put people more at ease. If you’re not, well, that’s an issue to.

Take a look at our leaders on a national stage. Who are we paying attention to? Which of them are making decisions, showing empathy, and are doing the right thing?

I’m not going to single any one politician out; I can do without the politically related comments at a time like this. But I would like to mention one person I’m listening to without fail: Dr. Anthony Fauci. When he speaks, I listen. He’s calm, cool, fact-based. He thinks before he acts and speaks. He’s tremendously knowledgeable and even though this pandemic is unprecedented, he acts like he’s been there. (And in a way e has: he’s advised every President since Ronald Reagan). In a nutshell: he’s acting the way a leader should act.

What You Do (and How You Do It) Is Critical

All you can do is your best. But make sure that – to the best of your ability, you create a sense of trust. Trust is a combination of communication and honesty. (That’s not so hard, but it’s hard to practice it every day). Trust also derives from your established values and ethics.

Always follow your values; your decisions will be much easier.

It’s all about Emotional Intelligence

What are your people thinking and feeling? What are their issues? Are you asking, do you understand (because you need to). This is even more important when employees are working remotely. People need to feel tethered to the organization they work for.

When you’re conducting video-based meetings, pay extra attention to non-verbal clues from your team. As much as possible, connect on an individual basis with those you work for and with you. Ask how they are (and mean it). Show compassion – but you can’t fake compassion if you don’t have it.

You Don’t Have the Luxury of Time

In these unchartered times, there’s nothing to fall back on. The adage that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert is still probably true, but we no longer have that much time.

So make sure to make decisions quickly – and be prepared to change your mind frequently. (This what we call leadership agility). You can second guess yourself all you want to in six months from now. But at this time – make change, enact change, but don’t get tied down to any decision you make.

And try and embrace everything and anything new! There has never been a better time to experiment – because we have to. I’d never participated in a Google hangout until 3 days ago. It can be done.

You Don’t Have All the Answers.

So make sure to ask your team what ideas they have to help during these turbulent times. It gives them a sense of ownership and helps them help you. And make sure to empower your leaders to lead – not everything need come to and through you. There will never be a better time to see who can step up than now. Adversity breeds success.

Be True to Yourself.

Remember who you are and don’t forget where you came from. You have established values, principles and ethics. If you haven’t done so already – write them down and review them every day. Intellectual curiosity – learn more, ask more questions, research and thus improve and become more valuable to those around you.

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