How to Lead During Times of Change

A headshot of Terry Sydoryk

by Terry Sydoryk

A cartoon illustration of Chaordix CEO Terry Sydoryk.

In these uncertain times, the only thing more certain than the fact that any public statement on COVID-19 will begin with the preceding phrase is that good leadership is absolutely crucial during times of change. The sentiment behind, “cometh the hour, cometh the man” has been expressed many times, many ways, throughout history and around the world. Sexist phrasing aside, it’s a fact that how you conduct yourself during the hard times matters—and the hour has most definitely cometh.

None of us eagerly signed up to deal with a global pandemic this year, but as leaders we are now called to step up to the greatest period of change our businesses may ever face. While the challenges we face are real, we can also seize this watershed moment as an opportunity to make our companies more aligned and unified than ever before. What follows is my humble but heartfelt two-cents on how to do so. 

Start With What You Know

When presented with any emerging business issue, one of the most helpful things to ask yourself is, “does this look like anything I’ve faced before?” Most of us are lucky enough to say that we’ve never lived through a crisis of this severity, scale and reach before. I’m no novice, but I certainly can’t pull out my notebook to look back on my management response to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. Like mine, your experience bank is not always going to provide an exact match, but you can look for similar themes and examples from which to glean insight. 

If you’ve been doing this for a while, it’s quite likely that you know more than you think you do. You may have handled a time of sizeable rollbacks or layoffs, dealt with the emergency closure of an office, the implementation of a new tech tool, or perhaps even faced a significant health crisis in your own life that you can draw from. Granted, this isn’t a time for a lot of self-indulgent naval-gazing, but you can surely take a few moments to think back on some past difficulties and make note of what was helpful—and what wasn’t.

Seek the Best Sources

Of course, you will also need to look outside yourself and the confines of your own experience and expertise for information, guidance and inspiration. COVID-19 is a double-edged sword in that you will be weighing health and safety related factors alongside economic and business considerations. All of which can have serious, long-term impacts on the overall wellbeing of your employees, customers and stakeholders. This is a time to lean on your network, your inner circle, and others you trust. Do not listen to every self-proclaimed expert or share anything without fact-checking it personally first. Let’s permanently don our critical thinking hats and question where information is coming from—and why. What are the “expert’s” qualifications? Is their reasoning sound? Are they dealing in facts or opinion? Are they overseen by, or accountable to, a reputable organization? Might they have a problematic bias or outside agenda? 

A cartoon illustration of grey and blue binoculars.

Your network could be vulnerable right now, so be wary of what is being shared and particularly of what you choose to propagate or contribute to. While you can pick up on the headlines and gather fast facts from reputable local media outlets, it’s always best to go directly to local governments, health authorities, and internationally recognized institutions like the World Health Organization (WHO) for in-depth information about the disease itself and associated protocols. For business related insight, the folks at TriplePundit have curated a COVID-19 Resource Guide that’s worthy of your consideration.

Make Informed Decisions and Provide Rationale

Everyone will have their opinions and personal priorities, but as a leader it falls to you to make the calls. When you are responsible for a workforce, you must recognize that everyone is looking to you for direction—as they should. But, no matter how much they admire or respect you, they won’t follow you blindly. They’re looking for context and rationale to understand the direction you have provided. With children, you may be able to shelter them from the ugly truth or deflect with a dismissive, “because I said so”, but with fully-grown adult employees and stakeholders that’s not going to fly. You’ve built teams filled with smart people (I hope!) and they aren’t going to be satisfied without reasonable explanations. 

The obvious initial step is to make rational, informed decisions in the first place. If you’ve followed the advice above and mined your own experience for insight while also synthesizing the best information from the best possible sources, your decisions should be grounded in sound logic. You’ll get more buy-in when people understand not just what they are being asked to do, but why they are being asked to do it. Don’t be afraid to share the process by which you arrived at a given decision. If you explored a number of alternate strategies or scenarios, consider sharing that line of thought. It shows that you are doing your due diligence and are committed to truly finding the best ways to move forward. Plan D often looks a lot more reasonable when people understand that plans A through C were thoroughly vetted.

Be Open to Feedback and Provide Constant Updates 

Calling the shots doesn’t mean laying down tyrannical edicts with no room for discussion. Part of communicating in a modern workplace is facilitating a robust feedback loop. Ideally, you’ll make well-reasoned decisions, share them with clarity and timeliness, and then provide channels and opportunities to gauge how it’s all going over. There’s no single right way to engage employees and gather perspectives, but town halls, virtual check-ins, digital surveys, forums and dedicated internal communities could all be explored. 

It’s important, particularly in an evolving crisis situation, to communicate clearly and often. Set a regular schedule for updates and stick to it. Be as swift as you can in disseminating new information and making important announcements. Your employees and other stakeholders will not assume that ‘no news is good news’ – on the contrary, your silence will be deafening and rapidly erode morale and trust. Of course, not every business decision you make will be negotiable. The most critical top-level decisions related to ongoing and future cash flow will likely have to be upheld for the sake of your company’s viability, but it is still valuable to understand how individuals are perceiving these decisions and impacted by them.

A cartoon illustration of a gold bell beside a paper airplane mid-flight.

Be Frank but Empathetic

People are deeply – and understandably – anxious about their lifestyles, livelihoods and actual lives right now. This isn’t the time to avoid the tough questions. Even if you can’t definitively answer them, you can still acknowledge them. Being honest about what you don’t know is a sign of leadership strength, not weakness. If you’re not sure what the next 6 months will look like, be candid about it; acknowledge what uncertainty can make people feel like, and then explain the steps that you’re taking to become more certain. If you have hard truths to share, say them promptly and plainly. Beating around the bush is a selfish brand of cruelty at a time when people deserve as much clarity and comfort as can reasonably be given. 

As cliched as it has become in recent weeks, we are all in this together. With transparency and empathy, leaders can provide a safe space for their internal community to share and support each other, both formally and informally. Don't make it about work, make it about each other. As this Forbes article eloquently points out, “Leaders need to be deeply connected to the emotional landscape of those in their ranks. Leaders who can not only speak to unspoken concerns and deepest fears, but who can reign them in, fuel optimism and rally the best thinking. Leaders who treat employees as real people with family’s (sic) just like their own, not costs on a balance sheet.”

Practice Flexibility 

COVID-19 has forced us to face change on an almost daily basis. This is not a natural disaster that swept in and out, leaving us to navigate the aftermath—we are still very much in the eye of an active storm. As long as the situation remains fluid, so must we. The path forward looks different for everyone and the shifting circumstances affect everyone individually in unique ways. In times of rapid and unexpected change, expediency sometimes trumps elegance. We were all forced to make rapid-fire decisions and perhaps to respond reactively rather than intentionally. As time marches on, it’s wise to take stock of what is working and what may need to be tweaked or evolved. Consider experimenting with different approaches to communication, work hours or types of meetings. Look for ways you can bend without breaking your core roles and responsibilities.

A cartoon illustration of a mountain top in front of a sunny blue sky with a green flag on top.

Though unsettling, times of change can also be times of progress. Embrace the opportunity to focus on how your company can emerge stronger and more resilient, rather than simply scrambling to get back to normal. By the time this pandemic has run its course, I predict that we will all be tired of using the word “pivot” and we can universally agree to retire it from our lexicon at such a time. But until then, continue to embrace adaptability over rigidity and do not be afraid to make those pivots that will pave the way to better things.

Parting Words

This is a challenging time for humanity as individuals, companies and organizations around the globe are impacted by the multi-pronged threats of COVID-19. Leaders share a triple burden to do what they can to protect their own wellbeing, their employees’ wellbeing and the wellbeing of the company they helm. Some sectors and companies will blossom and thrive under the changing regime while others will be pushed to the brink—or sadly fall off the edge. Whatever the landscape of change looks like to you, all any of us can aim to do is navigate the health, social and economic repercussions of COVID-19 with competency and, ideally, some grace. It’s okay not to have all the answers – there's a good reason we keep talking about unprecedented and uncertain times – but we must persist in asking the right questions. Chief among them: how can we reimagine, reinvent and reset ourselves, our people and our companies to not only survive the immediate crisis but to thrive in a post-Coronavirus world?

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