As the world struggles with the gravity of the present moment, business leaders are looking ahead and struggling to understand how the present moment will shape business in the years to come.
Members of the AIIR Global Coaching Alliance have spent hundreds of hours helping leaders anticipate and adapt to extraordinary circumstances. In a recent webinar, Making Strategic Decisions in Times of Crisis, a panel of senior executive coaches, moderated by CEO Dr. Jonathan Kirschner, shared what their clients are struggling with the most, and how they have helped them overcome the challenge of leading through the coronavirus crisis and make strategic decisions for their organizations’ futures.
Below are eight key takeaways from the webinar.
The most prominent theme of the webinar was the need for leaders to embrace their vulnerability as human beings.
“It is important for leaders to be vulnerable,” said organizational effectiveness expert Tonushree Mondal. Leaders are experiencing many of the same challenges as their employees — the stress of uncertainty, learning to work from home, leading their children’s education.
On the one hand, showing that vulnerability to employees is important for building trust.
“Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, is doing an incredible job,” said executive transition coach, Dr. Deanna Siegel Senior. “She is giving updates, but she’s also talking about how she is dealing with the crisis in her own home, with her own children.”
Ardern’s empathy and vulnerability have earned her an 80% public approval rating, even as she imposed stringent stay-home measures in New Zealand.
“It’s amazing how many people’s children I’ve met on Zoom calls in the past month and a half,” said Kirschner. And, actually, I think it’s the coolest thing. We’re all humans, right? But somehow we didn’t know, or didn’t attend to that.”
On the other hand, acknowledging their vulnerability helps leaders take care of themselves.
“Leaders are trying to be everything to everyone — they’re trying to be supermom or superdad, they’re trying to be the resilient leader,” said Mondal. But there are stressors in the background that, “if not handled, will lead to the dark side coming out. So it’s more important than ever for leaders to first take care of themselves,” then move on to taking care of others.
Even though most of us are experiencing the same challenges, we still experience these challenges differently. And when contact with your front-line employees is limited to a few minutes on a team video conference each week, it can be easy for leaders to seem out of touch with the challenges their employees are facing.
To understand the challenges your employees are facing, and to understand what they need from you, leaders set aside time to connect.
“Knowing what the front lines are experiencing is so important,” said Senior. “Whether that’s your nurse spouse tells you about their day or members of your team who are dealing with homeschooling, connecting and staying grounded is crucial.”
There is a saying in the military that slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.
We have been doing business in VUCA conditions for long enough that talking about it is starting to sound cliché. But in a moment where information changes by the minute, it is easy to get stuck in a reactive mindset.
“I think we all know that right now in this medium term, we are struggling, we are faced with immediate decisions and actions and it’s easy to quickly get into a reactive mindset, which of course is the opposite of a strategic mindset,” said Kirschner.
“The metaphor I’ve been using with my coachees is to imagine holding their child’s hand and crossing the street for the first time,” said leadership and executive development consultant, Iris Nafshi. “You tell them to slow down, look sideways, and move forward.”
Slow down to see past the chaos of the moment, but not so much that you lose your momentum. Look sideways, beyond the immediate challenges in front of you to what is happening in your industry and, more broadly, what is happening in other industries, the government, and the economy. Then move forward.
At a moment when people are looking to leaders, every email you send and action you take sends a signal to your organization and the outside world. That’s problematic for two reasons: (1) under pressure, most people tend to show their dark side or stress behaviors, and (2) when most of your communication with your employees is virtual, it can be hard to gauge how you’re coming across.
A coach can play a critical role in helping you understand how your actions are being perceived.
“As a leader, everyone is watching you and every move that you make,” said Nafshi. “A coach or mentor can help keep you in check.”
“It is really awesome to have colleagues who can share their candid feedback,” said Kirschner. “That’s something I’ve been asking of my team: If you notice I’m being too reactive or demonstrating too much of my stress behaviors, please let me know.”
As humans, we like to be in control. So we push to create phases and timelines and end dates. But we are in a rare situation when we are completely at the mercy of our environment, and the timelines that we set today could change completely by tomorrow.
“Appreciate that this is a marathon, not a sprint,” said c-suite advisor and strategy coach, Jamie Ramsden. “Studies of people in captivity show that those with the least resilience are those with a fixed end date in mind, and those who have an overly sunny view of how things will turn out.”
“We have to face the reality that we don’t know how this will turn out, and we have to understand that this will be an iterative process, not a one-and-done event. It’s going to come in waves, and there are shocks in the system that we’ll see play out over the next year,” he continued. “So there is a difference between training for a marathon and training for a sprint. I use the metaphor that the leader needs to be like the Federal Reserve. That they have to have reserves of energy to inject into their people and organizations. If you don’t have any reserves to tap into, your team and your organization will suffer. So, self care is really important at this time.”
“How you treat people now will define your brand for the next decade,” said Ramsden.
Even before this crisis started, organizations were struggling with employee trust. According to Gallup, just one in three employees trust the leaders of their organization. That lack of trust was impacting engagement, loyalty, retention, and productivity.
“How do you get people to trust you when the news changes from minute to minute, when some tough decisions have to be made?” said Mondal.
Leaders and their organizations have stepped up and shown tremendous empathy toward their employees through the course of the pandemic. But empathy doesn’t change the financial reality that many organizations will be forced to reduce pay and/or reduce their staff.
How do you balance empathy with reality? Transparency.
CEO Brian Chesky’s message to employees announcing layoffs at Airbnb will likely become a case study in how to transparently and compassionately make difficult financial decisions that affect peoples’ lives. He lays out very clearly the financial considerations that prompted the decision to lay off around 25% of the company, expresses his regret, then details the ways in which Airbnb will try to support affected employees.
“You know, for four or five years, everybody has been talking about VUCA and agility and the accelerating pace of business,” said Kirschner. “We now have this opportunity to hit reset and to really step back and reauthor both how we live and how we work.”
Winston Churchill said “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” In this moment of massive disruption, leaders have an opportunity to eliminate assumptions and old systems that are in the way.
“You can’t overlook the massive opportunity for innovation and learning,” said Nafshi. “I work with an organization that has been trying to take its call centers virtual forever. Well, guess what? When this started everyone took their laptops home and now all the call centers in that company are virtual.”
“You have to disrupt your business before it gets disrupted for you,” said Ramsden. “I worked with an American company delivering a product to a client in Australia. When they were forced to do it virtually, they were able to do it with better service and save millions in costs that they could share with the client.”
When the future is uncertain, purpose can provide clarity.
In his letter to Microsoft employees, CEO Satya Nadella said “It is in times of great disruption and uncertainty that our ability to stay grounded in our sense of purpose and remain true to our identity is of the utmost importance.”
As we focus on the future, it is equally important to do so through the lens of the past. Why does the company exist in the first place, and how can you serve that purpose going forward?
“Purpose gives us the clarity that we need,” said Kirschner. “And you really do need to slow down and breathe in order to access that.”
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