Leadership in the Time of COVID-19 – Mark Nevins

The reality of life post-COVID-19 has not fully sunk in yet, and its consequences for our businesses, organizations, economy, and society will play out over the rest of 2020 and beyond. Right now, we really need sober, smart, values-driven, and focused leadership. Remember the old adage, “Crisis does not build character, it reveals it.”   

Eighteen months ago, my friend John Hillen and I published a book on leadership titled What Happens Now?  The book’s core argument is that leaders, even (and especially) highly successful ones, must reinvent and change themselves or risk being outrun by their businesses.  No matter how effective you were yesterday, you will find that today and tomorrow are likely to make new and different demands on you as a leader.  If you fail to reinvent and adapt, you and your organization will stall and fail.

There’s no “playbook” for leadership when the stakes are high, and there’s certainly no playbook for what to do in the face of a 21st Century pandemic. We are all facing threats on multiple fronts at once: to self, family, employees, customers, suppliers and business partners, governmental and financial systems, and potentially our social fabric. Even the Dean of the Harvard Business School can only offer a few good insights for companies facing this new reality, but no silver-bullet solutions.

So, what should you do if you’re responsible for a team, organization, or company? Following are a few suggestions. (Note: the paragraphs below include carefully chosen links to help you in pragmatic ways—please click through.)

First and foremost, educate yourself. This means going beyond just watching the TV news. Don’t get sucked into the melodrama that characterizes the media (and especially social media) these days—and don’t project melodrama onto others. One good source to monitor is the Daily Situation Report from the World Health Organization (WHO). The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website has pragmatic advice on how to protect yourself as well as interim guidance for businesses and employers.

Recognize as well that in business and economic terms, things are changing on a daily or even hourly basis. Today’s realities are quite different than they were on Monday, and vastly different from just last week. Be flexible, be adaptive, and be willing to make difficult choices. Nobody has a crystal ball, but read up on the macroeconomic implications for your business/industry/sector so you can make better decisions. I’ve been following feeds from The Economist, The Brookings Institution, Moody’s, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and I plan to add more.  

Next, anchor everything in what’s most important: the safety of everyone you’re responsible for. Ensure that you have clear business protocols and expectations in place and fine-tune them as necessary.  Work-from-home is only the first step: what else needs to happen in your organization for people to feel safe, engaged, informed, and useful? One of my clients, perhaps the toughest CEO you’ll ever meet and leader of an aggressively sales-driven global company, spent the first 20 minutes of his Town Hall on Monday underscoring that what mattered most to him was that his people felt physically and psychologically safe. This isn’t a touchy-feely thing—making people feel safe is one of your most important jobs as a leader.  

At the same time, build a clear plan for your organization. Several of my CEO clients have urged the importance of “thinking global and acting local”—that is, sketch out plans that are as detailed as possible for the longer-term (at least through the end of 3rd Q), recognizing that much will change, but at the same time be extremely focused on your game-plan week-by-week and even day-by-day.  Things are changing at an incredible rate.  Put together a tactical set of steps for this new way of working. Think strategically, conduct (and re-conduct) scenario planning—Plans B, C, and D—and be willing to adapt quickly. If you ever wondered what “VUCA” really looks like, this is it.  

Be sure to leverage your team. You’re not in this alone, you shouldn’t try to be a superhero, and as one of my mentors once noted, “all of us is smarter than any of us.”  Bring your team together to ensure alignment on plans, priorities, and contingencies. Engage them in doing that scenario-planning.  Work with them to differentiate the truly important from the merely urgent—and help them do the same with their teams.  Ask them how they and their families feel, to help ensure everyone is tapping into his emotional intelligence to lead and manage in the right ways. Even in “normal” times, working with remote teams presents extra challenges; here are some great suggestions for making virtual teams work.

Over-invest in communication.  As my friends and clients hear me say often, “No executive has ever been faulted for over-communication.”  You must communicate with credibility and optimism. Be realistic but be positive. With most people now working remotely, set up multiple and new ways to keep in touch. As a leader, pay attention to your communication style and tactics, be deliberate, and be as “visible” as you can possibly be.  Set the right type and frequency of communication for your organization: maybe even a short weekly town hall for the next few weeks?  Be clear and specific with your messaging (what do people need to hear?) and don’t be afraid to repeat the key themes. Help people focus on what they can control: this is not a bad time to practice some Stoic leadership.  

Following on the topic of communication, be judicious in your formal communication to the whole company. Churchill didn’t do a daily radio address even at the height of the Second World War, and neither should you. While CEOs and other enterprise leaders must ensure that overall company communication is increased, they should not overdo all-hands calls or company-wide e-mails. Rather, drill your direct reports regularly in the right messages about what the company is doing and how their people should be responding, including as things change. All company leaders should be telling the same story, with confidence, compassion, and optimism: how to keep safe, how to work together, and how to ensure that everyone is focused what’s most essential for the business and its customers. 

Find new ways to create connections.  As above, communicate as much as you can, especially informally, and be sure that people can get hold of you: nothing is worse than a leader who fades away when the chips are down. Be available and be comfortable talking about personal concerns as well as the business.  If your organization doesn’t make use of videoconferencing, now is the time to put it in place.  Many tools are free (Skype, WhatsApp), and some of the major players in the space (e.g., Microsoft and Google) are currently giving away enterprise conferencing tools in response to COVID-19.  Many of my clients have moved to regular videoconferencing over the last few years—and once you get comfortable with it you’ll find it can enhance the sense of engagement and dialogue. If you’re new to conducting calls or meetings via video, here are some tips to help you get more comfortable.  And here are some great pointers on how to get people to participate.

Remember to be authentic. Don't forget why people have come to trust and follow you, and tap into your natural persona to create calm and focus. In times of crisis people crave the familiar. Now is not a good time to change your style: you don’t need to be like General Patton or Al Haig (am I dating myself?) to be an effective leader in times of crisis.  Don’t hide bad news.  Be honest, including saying “I don’t know” if you don’t know.  You don’t need to know all the answers—but you should take the time to understand what your people are asking and why they are asking it.  Here’s a an excellent set of questions you can use for yourself and your team: can you answer these?

Most of all, manage yourself. You’re a human being, and you’re stressed like everyone else—and probably in ways you may not even realize. Don’t let yourself get to the end of your rope.  Take the time to make sure you yourself are as prepared and focused as you can be. Stay balanced: get your exercise, eat properly, and make time for the people who are most important to you. Your family and friends need your attention and leadership as much as your employees and customers do.

As a closing: recall that one of last Fall’s biggest stories was The Business Roundtable reversing its longstanding position that “corporations exist principally to serve their shareholders.” Rather, those 180 CEOs unanimously agreed, every company must balance the needs of and commitments to all stakeholders—including customers, employees, suppliers, and local communities. If nothing else, the COVID-19 crisis may show us which companies really know how to do this.  

Be a leader of one of those companies. Your employees will remember for a long time how they were treated during this crisis. Nothing drives employee loyalty and engagement more than knowing “my boss cares about me as a human being.” As a leader you should treat this COVID-19 crisis as a defining moment for yourself and your organization. Step up and lead accordingly.

Special thanks to John Hillen, Fred Voccola, and Kurt Elia, who each contributed substantively to this article, and to all the authors whose work is linked above.

Mark D. Nevins, Ph.D.


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