5 Leadership Lessons from Two Months of Uncertainty

By May 19, 2020 General

Recently, I moderated a series of webinars during the first two months of the coronavirus-induced, stay-at-home orders under the banner of Navigating, Managing, and Leading During Uncertain Times. Industry leaders were gracious to open their laptops, share their home offices, and provide sobering insights on how they are addressing business challenges when business is anything but predictable.  

What I’ve learned through these and other leadership conversations, especially during this sedentary start to spring, is how critical the role of leadership, communication and action is in times of uncertainty regardless of industry. 

Here are five lessons that I’ve heard repeatedly and expressed in a number of different ways since mid-March – and they are lessons that can be applied long after this crisis is behind us. 

  1. Debunk rumors. 

    You’ve got to get ahead of the lunchroom lawyers. Accept the reality you’re facing and then communicate, communicate, communicate.” – Alicia Shaw, Attorney, Carlile Patchen & Murphy

    Employee grapevines exist in any company. Now factor in the fact that employees have had more time to question and contemplate all of the unknowns, and new shoots off that established grapevine can flourish fast. Intentional communication from leadership becomes critical to set the tone, articulating what is true and debunking what isn’t.
       
  2. Don’t speculate or make up answers. 

    There is a very high need for leaders to communicate effectively with clarity and confidence. People want the truth, so tell them what you know, tell them what you don’t know, and tell them what you’re doing to fill the knowledge gap.” – Janet Graesser, Principal, Janet Graesser Consulting

    Consider how the goalposts continue to shift with regard to information about the virus as well as guidance on Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) loans and forgiveness. Perhaps now more than ever, there is grace for not knowing all the answers. However, a commitment to providing the most up-to-date information within a fluid context is what people desire. And that requires a commitment to ongoing, transparent communication.
     
  3. Define what a win looks like. 

    The metrics you use to measure success are not the same right now as they were in previous quarters. Wins in the near term need to be redefined. In How Are You Keeping Score Right Now? I wrote about prioritizing business decisions, engaging your teams, controlling your thinking, and even asking for the impossible. As you define and achieve wins, your people will begin to see a way forward.

  4. Look for who rises to the top. “Your company is being stress-tested. Look for the cream that rises, especially as more heat is applied.” – Scott McComb, CEO & President, Heartland Bank

    There is truth in Scott’s perspective and importance in noticing the individuals who are on board, who you can count on, who are asking what more they can do, and offering ideas on what they are willing to do to benefit others and the company. But where these actions exist, so do equal and opposite reactions. Acknowledging those who haven’t bought in or who aren’t handling the situation well is necessary to determine if coaching or other actions need to be taken. 
     
  5. Commit to stay connected. 

    “I’m more concerned with employee relations and morale going forward than I am enforcement of COVID-19 rules. The more communication the better. You just can’t over-communicate right now.” – Craig Dukes, SVP, Human Resources, MTD Products   

    As state-by-state restrictions begin to ease and people get back to work, there will be a natural tendency to emulate how work was conducted before the pandemic. That may not be realistic. Many employees will be working staggered shifts with fewer colleagues to minimize contact. Some will continue working at home. But the need to connect with all of them will still be great. 

Overall, the good news is that there is a pent-up demand by customers of all kinds and an eagerness to start “moving forward” by virtually every business. But there are still hard truths – some known and some unknown – that will need to be confronted. These past two months have forced many leaders to connect and communicate more frequently and openly with employees – and that is one “new normal” that needs to continue.