Leadership in Troubled Covid-19 Times

Bringing Far-Sighted Vision with Creativity

The Covid-19 shutdown is a departure from the kind of crises the business world has faced in the past. Much of what’s happening now is unique to our time and place, and unique in easily identifiable ways. The very idea of running a business with an army of remote workers is something few of us would have imagined just a few years ago. Now, it’s the way we operate. The term “social distancing” would have been utterly alien just months ago. Now, it has joined our everyday language.

As a result, we don’t have a comprehensive roadmap already in place and ready to be put into action. Leaders need to be smart, flexible, level-headed, and, perhaps most of all, creative to weather the ongoing storm.

But even if current circumstances are unprecedented, being smart and creative doesn’t mean throwing out hard-won lessons of the past. We’ve survived before, weathering everything from recession and depression to tulip manias and dot-com bubbles. Effective leadership can and should draw on lessons from the past, even while it’s still trying to write the lessons of the present and the future.

Delegation has never been more necessary. In times of crisis, people are anxious – even, or especially, the people at the top. This can lead them to take more control when they should, in fact, be more willing to rely on the people who are closer to the front lines. Empowering your people and trusting in their abilities shows that those people are valued by the organization. If you want to foster a sense of “we’re all in this together” – and you do – that sense of appreciation is a huge push in the right direction, and actions like delegating actual decision-making power do speak louder than even appreciative words.

In an earlier health emergency, the Ebola crisis of 2015, Rio Tinto’s Guinea operation, with 4,000 employees, was hard hit. Hugo Bague, then group executive of organizational resources, was faced with the question of what to do with the large number of expatriate employees.

One option, and the one that would have been the likely corporate call, was to send them home en masse, “knowing that they would then lose all credibility and never be able to go back,” according to Bague in comments made in an interview on McKinsey & Company’s website. Instead, the decision was left to the team in Guinea, who decided to send employees’ families home. “After six months, we established a rotation so that expats could go visit their families even while maintaining skilled leadership on the ground.”

This doesn’t mean that upper management is less involved. Quite the contrary, in fact. As Bague, now a McKinsey senior adviser put it, “Autonomy doesn’t mean in isolation. We said clearly, whether you stay in Guinea or not is your call. But we want to have a discussion with you to ensure that you’ve looked at it at every angle.”

Decisions, regardless of the level at which they’re made, need to be analyzed, and there needs to be accountability throughout the ranks. That means that structure is a fundamental need.

When there’s great uncertainty, structure is especially necessary. The current pandemic is an absolute hotbed of uncertainty. It’s a fluid situation, almost by definition, in which even expert opinions change as more becomes known and circumstances themselves change. Government, especially at the federal level, has not done much to counter that uncertainty, or to offer anything like a coherent approach that might make people slightly less worried about what lies ahead. On top of all that, we have people working remotely in droves, lacking every bit of the structure that was once part of their daily lives.

Your organization can take steps to counter that trend. It can serve as a touchstone, a reliable part of people’s lives when so many other things seem to be increasingly chaotic. The key here is to do things according to a schedule, even if it’s an arbitrary schedule.

Arrange to have daily calls or other communications with employees at a fixed time each day, and prepare to be in it for the long haul – just as you want your employees to be in it for the long haul. Employees at all levels will be concerned about more than their jobs. They’ll also worry about their families, their own health, and their colleagues. A structured program of ongoing, reliable contact is a positive for everyone’s mental health, and that matters in a time of crisis. You, as a leader, can be an island of stability.

You can’t solve the problem, but you can help solve some problems. And your willingness to step into the breach will be noticed.

The New England Aquarium was one of the earlier casualties of the Covid-19 shutdown. It depends for its survival on crowds of visitors in close contact. In fact, some three-quarters of its revenue comes from admission fees and related onsite sales, and it laid off or furloughed the bulk of its workforce as soon as it became clear that the pandemic was not going to pass quickly.

Vikki N. Spruill, President and CEO, has kept lines of communication open even though the Aquarium is not the kind of operation that allows for much remote work. The organization has reached out to idle employees through its HR department, helping with access to unemployment filings and to other resources. There may not be a timetable for reopening, but the organization has not left its people out in the cold. Just because it couldn’t do much for them didn’t mean that it would opt to do nothing at all.

Your people's needs will always vary depending on the nature of your business and the specifics of a given crisis, but there’s always something. Effective leaders look for that something, and they act on it.

Preparation really matters. What you do in the midst of a crisis is often much more a matter of specific, targeted tactics than of grand, overarching strategy, but one place where great leadership stands out is in preparing for a crisis even if it hasn’t yet arrived. Consider the federal government, which had a pandemic response team in place until it was dissolved, apparently on the grounds that we didn’t need that kind of team because there wasn’t an ongoing emergency on its plate. A good leader doesn’t undo the work that’s gone before without a compelling reason; a great leader builds on that work, even if it doesn’t inure to his – or our – immediate benefit.

Admittedly, it can be hard to dedicate resources to fighting a threat that hasn’t materialized. But effective leaders can and should anticipate. If nothing else, they know that lines of communication that seem to be sufficient when times are good very often crack when enough stress is applied. If you’re going to be able to rely on your communications structure in dark times, stress-testing that structure, before things hit the fan, is essential.

A great leader has to be able to bring that far-sighted vision to the organization. Failing that, there’s a real danger that a crisis will overwhelm those systems that seemed just fine…until they were not.

“What next?” is the question that needs repeated asking. It should be obvious that any leader worth the name is laying plans for a time when the crisis has passed. But that’s the easy call, and a true leader doesn’t stop there. There must be plans in place for alternative futures, ones where a second wave comes at us or where business-as-usual isn’t close to an option. It is leaders who take those possibilities into account who will be the ones who’ve earned the commitment of the people they’re leading.

For one thing, that means not losing sight of mid-crisis issues, and putting time and energy into addressing the weaknesses that the pandemic exposed. There’s no immediate payoff from that particular investment, but that’s no reason to push things like contingency planning and strengthened lines of communication to the back burner.

We’ve been focused on tactics here, but this is one place where strategy – a grand vision, if you like – is what any organization and any leader need to embrace. Being caught flat-footed, especially if it happens more than once, is not a good look for leaders at any level.

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