In 30+ years of professional life, I’ve seen the world turn upside down a few times now: October 1987, September 2001, March 2008. Still after more than a decade of pretty much uninterrupted prosperity, the events of the last few weeks have unfolded as quickly and feel as unprecedented as any I’ve ever experienced.
It’s almost a cliché at this point to say that these are the times that test leaders and the organizational cultures they are responsible for. Over the past several days I’ve been on the phone with several of our clients – CEOs, Board Members, senior functional leaders – all of whom are trying to figure out what comes next and how to manage during a time vast uncertainty. I feel incredibly fortunate to have access to such an accomplished “kitchen cabinet” as my Firm’s partners and I plot a course for our relatively small, but globally diverse business. Here’s some of the sage advice I’ve received so far:
- Get closer to your team. It’s a tad ironic that we cluster our teams in offices to facilitate teamwork & collaborate and then conduct said collaboration mostly via email, Slack, text messaging, etc. Now that so many offices have been forced to disperse and work remotely those systems are as necessary as ever but probably not sufficient to get us through the current crisis. One CEO I spoke with commented that in this time of forced “social distancing” his top priority is getting closer to his team. That means he’s turning away from “quick hit” messages and instead picking up the phone (or opening a video chat) to engage in what he called “long form conversations”. In these conversations he’s dealing not only with the pressing business issues but also personal concerns of his team and their families.
- Focus on relationships not transactions. I had another contact remind me that “this is not the time to be selling”. The point being that your sales pitch is likely to fall on deaf ears as people are trying to triage a crisis. Instead now is the time to be available to your customers/clients and to offer support, advice and perspective. To remind them we are in the same foxhole and will do whatever it takes to help see them through the storm.
- Be transparent. As leaders, the executives I’ve been speaking with have a fine line to walk. They need to inspire hope and dampen fears while also preparing their organization to face potentially very grave challenges. “This is no time for Pollyannas or Cassandras” one told me. “This is the time to level with folks, stick to the facts but remind everybody of our mission and our values”.
- Leverage talent at every level. One of the CEO’s I spoke with has created a Corona Virus rapid-response team to develop contingency plans for every aspect of their business, from sales & marketing to operations and IT. Rather than staff the team solely with functional heads, this leader built a cross-functional team that included first-level managers, high-potential “up & comers” and more seasoned leaders. The rationale is to leverage diverse viewpoints from across the organization and keep key constituents aligned up and down the organization.
- Position yourself to accelerate out of the turn. One of the most reassuring conversations of the past several days was with a former Managing Partner of large global professional services firm. He helped lead his firm through the post-9/11 turmoil and 2008 global financial crisis. During both periods, he explained, his firm made the hard choice to cut staff but also went to great length to keep as much of their team intact as possible. When the markets rebounded, his firm was staffed and ready to take advantage of the sudden surge of new work while many of their competitors missed out as they scrambled to hire and rebuild.
While many of us now find ourselves in work-at-home isolation, none of us are in this alone. I plan to stay on connected in every way possible with my team and my industry network from whom I get great inspiration and hope for the future.
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