Over the last month, COVID-19 has rapidly accelerated the pace of change, elevated uncertainty levels, and created an atmosphere of fear.
Leading well is at the best of times challenging, and it’s just become a lot more difficult.
Over the last week, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own principles for leading during difficult times and I wanted to write them down.
Firstly, I wanted to consolidate my principles for myself so I have my own playbook for how I lead, and secondly, my hope is that it will also inspire you in your own leadership journey.
Principle #1: Focus on Service First
People are hurting right now – whether or not it’s due to losing their job suddenly with mandatory closures, a family member being unwell, or because of fears and anxiety about what the future may bring.
Many of your team right now will feel this way.
As a leader, our role right now (and arguably at all times) therefore needs to be in putting people first, and serving and supporting our team, customers and the broader community.
There are to key components to doing this right now:
The first is to serve with empathy.
With people struggling right now, it’s critical to serve with empathy. Only by having empathy can you get to the heart of how you can serve your team, customers and community in a way that will actually have a positive impact in their life.
The second is to serve by educating.
With so much uncertainty, doing what you can to educate your team, customers and community about how they can best navigate the current and future challenges COVID-19 brings in relation to your area of expertise is critical. It reduces anxiety and builds trust.
What can I do right now to help and support our team, customers and community navigate the challenges they face in their lives?
As a leader, this should be the first question you ask yourself.
Principle #2: Communicate Honestly & Frequently
Uncertainty fuels anxiety, and right now there is a lot of uncertainty.
In times of uncertainty communicating frequently is absolutely critical as it can help to reduce the uncertainty and the anxiety people feel by giving them ‘some’ answers about what the future ‘may’ bring.
I say ‘some’ and ‘may’ because no-one has all the answers or complete certainty, and this shouldn’t stop you from communicating with your team and customers.
During challenging times there is no such thing as ‘too much communication’. Communicating more is always better.
Communicating honestly, and letting your team and customers know what you do know right now, what may happen moving forward (both the good and bad), and what your suggested plan is will build trust, and even if the future outcomes may not be great, reduce the uncertainty because there is a plan in place.
I’ve learned that while as a leader you want to be able to tell your team everything will be alright, this isn’t necessarily helpful or true. It doesn’t address the internal fears people have in their heads which continue to be fed by everything they see on the news around them.
Additionally, if your team believe ‘everything will be fine’, you can’t mobilise them to get creative and contribute to the plan for surviving and thriving.
That’s why it’s so critical to communicate honestly, to not sugar coat things, to be upfront about the risks and downsides, as well as the positives and to share the plan moving forward.
Am I communicating with our team and customers honestly and frequently?
As a leader, this is the second question you should ask yourself.
Principle #3: Make Proactive Decisions
With progressively tighter restrictions under COVID-19, it can feel like the sword of Damocles is hanging over your head.
At any given moment, a new government announcement could be made that materially changes how your company, team and customers can work and interact.
One option is that you can try and ignore the sword hanging over your head and assume things will be alright – that the shut down order won’t come, that the number of new cases will dramatically fall, and that restrictions will only be in place for a very short time period. This will reduce your stress but not the anxiety felt by your team.
This is because it also doesn’t change the objective reality that the sword is in fact truly hanging there, and when it falls, it will change everything, perhaps irrevocably.
Another option is that you can acknowledge the sword hanging above your head. Living with the potential for great external change to occur at any moment however is incredibly stressful.
Not only is the anticipation anxiety inducing, but when the external change arrives and the sword falls, you must then scramble, and somehow quickly, under great time pressure find a way to adapt.
The best pathway therefore, is to acknowledge that the sword is hanging above you, and make proactive decisions before it falls to prepare you for the inevitability that it will fall.
This way, you can live with the sword and be less anxious, because you know you have a plan for when it falls, and when it does fall, you’re not scrambling to survive.
Am I making pro-active decisions that enable our team and customers to be prepared for the worst if and when it happens?
As a leader, this is the third question you should ask yourself.
Principle #4: Be Fiscally Responsible
Certainty around future revenue, growth rates, cashflow and profitability has eroded.
Shutdowns are having both direct and indirect impacts – directly causing the closing of physical premises and foot traffic, and indirectly as customers jobs and financial circumstances impact their purchasing decisions.
While the direct impact is often felt more immediately when the shutdown and social distancing regulations are introduced, the indirect impact will be a slower, more ongoing impact (especially given it’s likely the economy will fall into a recession), that will also last longer.
This makes budgeting and planning incredibly difficult – what will revenue look like next week, next month, next quarter? What will this mean for expenses, and your organisation’s runway?
With things changing incredibly quickly, quarterly planning cycles need to be shrunk to monthly at a minimum, and ideally even weekly or fortnightly, to get as real-time as possible data on revenue and expenses.
With government stating their goal is to put the economy in hibernation for at least 6 months, fiscal responsibility to ensure that your organisation has runway for at least 6 months (and ideally 12 months) is critical – this way when restrictions get relaxed, you’re ready to ramp up for growth once again.
Am I each fortnight reviewing our revenue, expenses, cashflow and balance sheet, and prioritising what needs to be maintained, and what cut-backs we need to make?
As a leader, this is the fourth question you should ask yourself.
Principle #5: Get Creative in Seeking Growth
This may appear on the surface to be at odds with Principle #4, but in fact, these are to sides of the same coin.
COVID-19 has created significant almost instantaneous disruption to how industries operate.
This means that creativity right now is critical for two reasons:
Reason #1: To enable organisations to extend their runway
At some point, restrictions will be progressively scaled back, and organisations can return to more typical operations.
To survive until this point however, may require organisations to pivot their current products and service delivery so that they can continue serving the communities current needs and maintain staff and operations for the future.
Reason #2: To position organisations for the long term
In periods of significant upheaval and change, there is also an opportunity for growth. The existing playing field changes, as different capabilities, skills and needs become more relevant.
This creates an opportunity for organisations to grow their reach and position themselves for growth when things return to a new normal.
Am I with our team identifying creative ways we can support our customers and our community, so that we can grow our impact now and in the long term?
As a leader, this is the fifth question you should ask yourself.
Principle #6: Experiment and See What Sticks
With things changing so quickly right now, no-one really knows that they want and need.
What is the best way to navigate working, learning and living with COVID-19 restrictions?
This is a HUGE unknown that as a society we’re all collectively trying to work out the answer to in real-time.
As a result, rather than doubling down, and going all-in on a hypothesis, you have about what your customers need right now, adopting lean start-up principles (regardless of your organization’s size) is important.
A core philosophy of the lean start-up is experimentation.
This involves identifying multiple hypotheses you have, and then identifying the smallest possible actions you can take to test each one, collecting valuable data and feedback.
The goal is to in the quickest amount of time, with the least expense, test and validate which hypotheses you have are accurate (which you should double down on), and which ones are incorrect (and should be shelved).
Am I identifying with our team small experiments we can run to test a hypothesis we have about what our customers & the community need right now?
As a leader, this is the sixth question you should ask yourself.
Principle #7: Build for the Long Term
For some organisations right now it can feel like there will be no long term. With business closures causing lay-offs and serious cashflow and liquidity concerns for businesses, it may feel like everything is lost.
Even if it’s not quite this dismal for you, with so much happening in such a short period of time, it can be easy to lose sight of hope due to being stuck down in the trenches, facing one barrage after the other.
As a leader, a key part of our role is inspiring hope in our team and customers that we can and will overcome. Brene Brown calls it ‘Gritty Faith, Gritty Facts’.
It’s not about sugarcoating things and giving everyone a false sense of hope. It’s about looking at the objective reality, and yet, still holding onto and fighting for hope.
That’s why thinking and planning for the long term is important. It is a reminder of what is possible and it creates hope for everyone of what is possible on the other side of the crisis.
Thinking and planning for the long term also ensures that what you are doing now, and the experiments you run align with the bigger picture. This way you don’t get distracted and sucked into a pivot that takes you away from your long term mission.
Am I planning for the long term and how we can create both hope and the possibility of growth in the future for our organisation?
As a leader, this is the seventh and final question you should ask yourself.
What are your principles for leading in challenging times?
I’d love to hear what one of your guiding principles is right now as you lead during COVID-19!
Which one of the above principles resonated most with you?
Let me know in the comments.
Hey, I’m Rowan. I’m the CEO of Art of Smart Education and I’m on a mission to help 1,000,000 young Australians answer the big question, “What am I going to do with my life when I finish school & how do I get there?”