Despite the uncertainty and fears we face -- fears from contracting or spreading the coronavirus to financial fears from loss of jobs, customers, revenue and lost opportunities -- there is one redeeming quality coming out of this terrible pandemic, which I can summarize in a simple sentence:
In a crisis situation, great leaders always rise to the top.
Leaders are now faced with having to rapidly adjust to changing their own daily behavior and create fast changes to curb the virus' spread. But they're also faced with coming up with ways for employees and customers to adapt to the new normal: the stay-home economy.
The rules of engagement, however, are still the same in the virtual new world of remote work. People are still human. And to lead IS human.
This is an immense opportunity for leaders to step up their game, show up with their best selves, and calm fears when people are scared. To gauge where you stand against the best leaders in times of uncertainty, ask yourself four crucial questions:
1. Are you communicating clearly and calmly?
A crisis leader's highest priority should be to guide employees through uncertainty and the unexpected to assuage fears amidst so much misinformation and "fake news." To do that, a clear vision of the immediate future should be communicated to your employees -- one with a simple, not complicated or confusing, message that sticks in people's minds and inspires them to action.
Take the leadership of Unilever, a global consumer goods company with 155,000 employees, as a stellar example of how to manage crisis.
Unilever's CEO, Alan Jope, took action by communicating a simple message framed around safety: how to keep his employees and Unilever's customers safe.
Unilever recently published Jope's email to all his employees that covered a list of five "must nots" and four "musts." He stated, "Now, more than ever we need to stay calm, be resourceful, and do what we do best: focus on supporting each other, meeting the changing needs of our consumers, and on serving our customers."
2. Are you staying connected to your people, virtually?
Social distancing as a means to limit contact with other human beings does not mean human isolation. As the world goes remote in such a stressful time, this is the absolute wrong time for leaders to go MIA. Leaders should be ever more present, available, and sensitive to new demands, stresses, and the unknown.
At Catalytic, a digital process automation technology company, founder and CEO Sean Chou is working hard to maintain the company's human-centered culture, virtually. "We're holding hang out sessions and lunches together over video conference. We've started a book club where we're currently debating between reading something business, or more likely, something fun. We've set up chats for tips and tricks on working from home and we are providing regular communications."
Chou shares that his employees have also come up with creative ways to stay connected too. "They've set up a virtual happy hour, created a digital workflow on our platform for an indoor fitness challenge, and the discussions in our gamer channel rapidly shifted from in-person board games to virtual board games," Chou told me over email.
3. Are you protecting your people's livelihood?
The pandemic and its effects on our lives wasn't our choice. We didn't ask for this. But we, as leaders, can choose how to respond to it.
One of the best ways to show strength in the face of crisis is to help sustain the livelihood of others, especially employees whose jobs have been lost indefinitely. While not all companies have the financial means (or belief) to keep paying their employees during a work stoppage, some CEOs live and die by the non-negotiable values of putting their people ahead of profits
In a recent Tweet, Kristen Hadeed, CEO of the incredibly-popular cleaning company Student Maid, displayed her True North when she announced that her company is closing for two weeks: "Best choice for our people. Worst choice for our numbers. We did it anyway. Leaders -- now is the time to protect our people and fight for them at all costs!"
Best choice for our people. Worst choice for our numbers. We did it anyway. Leaders--now is the time to protect our people and fight for them at all costs! Please RT. pic.twitter.com/tHJkEXisud-- Kristen Hadeed (@KristenHadeed) March 18, 2020
In the Tweet, Hadeed attached an open letter explaining her decision:
Closing for two weeks - maybe more -- will be absolutely devastating to our business...This will no doubt set us back. And we are in the business of CLEANING. We could have totally used this as an opportunity to surcharge and try to get as many clients as possible. I would be lying if I didn't think about the financial opportunity we had in this moment. But ultimately, this isn't about money. This is about protecting the people who put their trust in us.
Hadeed told her employees they will be paid during the closure even though the company can't afford it, adding, "We will do everything in our power to make sure [employees] are taken care of for the time that we are closed." For team members who are able to get by financially, she has asked them to put those resources in a pot for team members in need. Additionally, Student Maid's leadership team has committed to reducing their own salaries.
This example of extreme selflessness should be applauded, but even more so for Hadeed's courageous social responsibility -- the responsibility of all businesses in the meantime -- to take the necessary steps to 'flatten the curve,' decrease the spread of the virus, and keep humanity safe.
I am confident that this will work long-term for Hadeed and Student Maid after we get over this madness. I've studied her company, read her book, and interviewed her for my podcast. Hadeed is an extremely rare breed of a servant-leader executive who has sown the seeds of sustainable workplace culture exactly for times like these -- seeds that, when things return to normalcy, will reap a harvest of success through increased employee loyalty, commitment, trust, discretionary effort, and high performance. You can't beat that with a stick.
4. Are you reassuring your employees?
When the future is uncertain, many employees will look to their leaders for reassurance and direction -- even though you might not have all the answers. Relax, we're all in this crazy ride together. It's OK to confidently express your own doubt or uncertainty while maintaining your authority.
But before any hint of panic kicks in, pause, center yourself and be present in the moment. Then exercise your leadership empathy by putting yourself in your team members' shoes.
As you assess where people are in the crisis, ask simple questions to address any of their concerns first. This places confidence in their eyes that you have their best interests in mind. For example:
- What do you need an immediate answer to?
- Where can I focus my efforts and attention to better support you right now?
- What's in the way of you achieving your goals right now?
The quicker you find out their challenges and roadblocks, the more likely you'll be able to calm them down. Make sure to stay informed and communicate frequently, even if you don't have news to report because, as they say, "no news is good news." And always followup on an issue to keep the troops assured that you're in action mode.