Updated: Apr 6, 2020
"They didn't cover this in my MBA program."
A friend of mine - an exceptional leader I might add, said this to me the other day as we discussed how she's adjusting to leading a team in the age of COVID-19. She laughed, though exasperated, and followed it up with:
"All those organizational leadership classes definitely did not prepare me to lead through a global pandemic."
Although we were able to laugh together, this conversation got me thinking about leaders just like her, all over the globe, who are doing their very best to manage through a season of unprecedented change. We couldn't have known how to prepare for this, but here we are, working to build a plane that's already in flight. It feels very overwhelming, especially because we don't have a sure timeline ahead of us for when we might return to our offices or classrooms.
There's no question that our teams and workplaces will be forever changed because of what we're experiencing together. Yes, we represent different industries and communities and all of them will have been impacted in different ways and to different degrees. But what we have in common is this:
The way we lead our teams through this season will shape our company culture for years to come.
The decisions we make today (and yes, the ones we made yesterday and last month, too) will have a cumulative effect on those we have been entrusted to lead. And as leaders, our greatest responsibility is to shepherd and care for our team members as we work hard to reach collective goals together. The leaders who emerge victoriously from this season will be the ones who were strategic and intentional with their communication.
Unfortunately, there are very few simple answers when it comes to leadership strategy in the age of COVID-19. We've never been here before. But what we do know for sure is that crisis tends to reveal our true priorities, true values, and true culture. It's easy to print our company values on a new-employee packet or paint them on a wall in a conference room. It's much harder to exemplify those values when we're anxious, fearful, and uncertain about the future of our organizations.
And that is the heart behind this question we encourage all leaders to ask themselves right now:
"What do you hope your team members will say about how you led them through this season of COVID-19?"
Think on this and then think on it some more.
I encourage you to write it down or type it out and place it where you will see it on a daily basis. Tape it to your desk or put it as a daily alarm in your phone so you'll see it every morning before you start to work. Add the question to your leadership team's meeting agenda each week so everyone will think about it often.
These sentiments you write down should drive your decision-making and your priorities when it comes to leading your staff. When we look back on this season, we want to have been the kinds of leaders our team members desperately needed. And the way we get there is by thinking deeply and strategically about what we're communicating every single day.
We recently asked a group of leaders this guiding question and here are a few of their responses:
"They gave us all the tools we needed to do our jobs remotely. I had everything I needed to work from home."
"They coached us through changes in our job, roles, methods, priorities, etc."
"We were scared about our jobs but they had a plan and that made us all feel less anxious."
"They made time to check in with us and care for us as individuals and they knew we were all struggling with the situation in different ways."
"They fought hard to keep our jobs."
"They communicated very transparently about how decisions were being made so that we were all in the loop. We didn't feel left out."
"They understood that our productivity was going to suffer working from home, especially if we had children at home to care for or homeschool."
"They responded appropriately to the immediate medical and safety threat and didn't ask us to put ourselves or those around us in danger."
So whatever you hope will be said of your leadership when this season is behind us, make it your mission to act and communicate consistently with those messages.
And don't forget to give yourself some grace, too. You won't do this perfectly, and that's okay.
Remember, they didn't cover this in class.
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