“Leadership is not a position or a title, it is action and example.”
– Donald McGannon
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote Part 1 of my 2-Part series on how to be an effective leader during COVID-19.
Strong, effective leadership is more critical now than it has ever been. It’s human nature to look to our leaders to set an example during any time of crisis, no matter how small.
And no one would argue that a global pandemic and widespread social unrest are small.
So, what does this environment mean for you, as a leader?
This Harvard Business Review article about leading with humanity shares a George Saunders analogy that captures the present moment for me: We’ve slipped on ice, but we haven’t hit the ground yet.
We’re caught in that moment between losing control and knowing what the full impact will be.
Business leaders therefore walk a tightrope, providing clear direction, encouragement, and comfort—while acknowledging that we aren’t sure what lies ahead.
And the stakes of getting the response right have never been higher.
Our work lives and our personal lives have come crashing together this year in a completely unexpected way. Most teams have gone fully virtual, so that parents find themselves working from home alongside their kids, and casual conversation around the water cooler is no longer the day’s biggest distraction.
As we start to navigate the logistics of coming back to the world, the landscape is a moving target. We’re all struggling to address economic change, health risks, and frustrations on every level for ourselves, let alone our team.
Figuring out how to do business amidst the chaos—while keeping people happy and safe—feels a lot like the perfect storm.
In a recent study by Edelman, 71% of respondents across 12 international markets said they’d lose trust in a brand forever if they felt that it was putting profit over people.
So clearly, both internally and externally, we’re being judged on how we interact with each other with a higher level of scrutiny than we may ever have been subject to before.
What can you do to keep your team productive and happy, and ensure that your business survives this historic period of change and unrest?
Remember that your employees are people first. They have the same fears, uncertainties, and distractions that you do—perhaps even more so, especially if they’re parents, or caring for someone who’s in an at-risk group.
Now is a time to focus on people first and foremost. The survival of your business likely depends on it.
ESTABLISH A PROCESS FOR REGULAR COMMUNICATION
Everyone, from your employees to your clients, is hungry for information right now. They want to know what the plan of action is, over what time period, and what it all means in the long term.
It’s easy to fall into the habit of communicating before considering what to say, especially when everything feels so urgent and time-sensitive.
But during times of crisis, CLEAR communication beats QUICK communication for its own sake every time.
And don’t forget to convey the “why” behind the decisions you make. It’s not enough to tell your teams the “what” and the “how.”
Keep change management principles top of mind—since that’s what you’re doing more and more these days.
No one likes to be told that they have to do something new, or that their workplace is making major changes, without being told why those things are necessary. So trust your employees enough to share as much as you can with them about why certain decisions are being made.
The reality is that lots of employees are being asked to take on additional tasks and responsibilities, especially as leaders make hard decisions about reducing the size of their workforce.
Communicating the “why” behind a decision or an action helps people feel engaged and on the same team, rather than talked down to or put-upon.
It’s also helpful to make communication a process. Don’t just hope that good communication happens on its own—make sure it does.
Scheduling regular meetings or one-on-one touchpoints is one great way to put your team at ease—just remember that any meeting can derail into a waste of time without an agenda and a clear purpose.
Knowing that there’s time set aside to communicate face-to-face, even if that face time is virtual, allows employees to put their grievances or questions aside for the right time to discuss them.
Instead of spending time complaining on Slack to anyone who will lend a sympathetic ear (!), they can keep focusing on their work in the meantime. If they know they’ll be heard, they’re more likely to move on and be productive.
There are lots of different ways to keep your finger on the pulse of your teams between meetings, too.
With the excellent project management software that exists today (much of it free), there’s no reason you should have to spend hours tracking down the status of a project or task, just because you can’t tap someone on the shoulder.
Create a process establishing how and when you’ll be notified of anything urgent, and make sure everyone knows when and where to check in.
Two great tools we use at AMI (Andrew Mellen, Inc.) are Asana and Slack.
Both have free versions, so you don’t have to blow the budget on new software if that’s just not an option for you. We use Asana for task management, project tracking and questions directly related to a task. Slack is where our daily communications live. It’s also where we send out quick updates, or tasks that need immediate attention.
For a full suite of recommended tools, especially for your remote team, check out this article.
Whatever system or software you choose, keep action items and communication organized and clear. There are plenty of distractions in our world right now; don’t let chasing down the right information be one of them.
Of course, if you put a process or a tool in place, it’s wasted unless you use it.
Don’t bother training your employees on a process if you don’t plan to enforce it and use it yourself. If an idea gets floated on a video conference, make sure someone is responsible for writing it down and recording it in the appropriate place.
It’s always tempting to just continue with the “old way” of doing things. Change is hard—especially now, when just about everything feels like it’s changing at once.
Remember to keep your eye on what’s valuable in the long run. Long-term benefit over short-term gratification.
For instance, you might decide to start using Slack, but then default to email, especially if your team is not very big. But even if email has been “good enough” until now, there’s a reason it hasn’t been great.
Maybe key project details slipped through the cracks, or important task delegations got buried. Hunting through an email thread for critical information you need to work on a project can be time-consuming. And if you have to expand that search to your entire inbox, it’s even worse.
Putting even the simplest of project management and communication tools in place can save you and your team critical time and energy. This is time and energy you can put back into nurturing your clients, building internal morale, or kicking off a project that’s been back-burnered, but could bring your company to the next level.
PROMOTE PEAK PERFORMANCE
Now that you’re over the initial hurdles of transitioning to a virtual workspace, it’s time to start thinking about how you can inspire and motivate your teams from afar.
As a leader, it’s important to understand and empathize with everyone at your organization as much as you can. Everyone is feeling anxiety, overwhelm, and uncertainty coming from all directions—and not just at work.
It’s even more important to understand that because of the state of the world, people have naturally become more focused on tactical work and less focused on future work.
That’s just the reality right now, and that’s okay.
But if history teaches us anything, it’s that we all look to our leaders for guidance and reassurance during times of crisis.
We need a way to feel confident, and we need to know that we can contribute to the bigger picture in a meaningful way.
The good news is that you don’t have to start from scratch. It’s possible to inspire and motivate your team without reinventing the wheel.
A great place to start is by taking a few minutes to review how you address your team. Are you hyper-focused on their mistakes, or are you highlighting their progress and achievements?
An overly negative tone can cause discord, and ultimately will lead to team members feeling undervalued and unappreciated. Their work efforts can stagnate as a result, which prevents teams from accomplishing their (and your) goals.
On top of being a productivity and confidence killer, too much negative focus also creates distance between you and your employees.
Negative work environments have also been shown to promote anxiety. People develop new worries about the stability of their jobs and become pessimistic about work-related issues.
In other words—a little appreciation goes a LONG way.
Acknowledge your team’s accomplishments through recognition and/or rewards. It might be time to cash in those points for a stock of gift cards that you can send out to your team when they go the extra mile or complete a large project.
But appreciation doesn’t have to be monetary. Simply recognizing great work during a team meeting can be plenty.
And don’t forget to encourage the people on the team who weren’t rewarded. Send them an email to check in, and ask if you can do anything to support them. Remind them that they are an integral part of the organization and reassure them of the success they can STILL achieve.
Take their feedback to heart, if you get any, and use it to implement new opportunities for everyone to expand their skills and knowledge.
Reinforce their purpose by making sure your team is engaged with you and each other. Face-to-face interaction is a powerful way to promote this kind of engagement.
Use Zoom, Skype, or Google Meetups for team meetings if you don’t currently have a paid video conferencing app. These are free ways to promote a level of interaction that just isn’t possible on a conference call.
SUPPORT YOUR TEAM AND MIND YOUR MORALE
As an employer, you have the opportunity to set the tone for your business. If you exude an “all work and no play mentality without showing people the fruits of their labor, no one will be enthused or energized by their work.
Take the time to share the company’s accomplishments and milestones. Inform everyone as best you can about where you’ve been, the struggles you’ve overcome and the direction you’re heading.
Share your goals and plans for moving forward, both in the immediate future and in the long run. Include the whole company in your vision and the part they play in it.
This isn’t just good for morale; it’s good for business. Having more people in your corner who believe in your vision and are motivated to help you achieve it is always a good thing.
Remember to give credit where credit is due. If everyone’s been working their butt off lately, say something to let them know you’ve noticed.
Acknowledge your team’s achievements, and don’t be shy about telling them where they’ve helped. Do this publicly,not just one-on-one.
And be mindful of where you’re critical, and where you’re supportive. Good leadership isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and there will be times when you need to tell someone their work isn’t cutting it.
But calling someone out for missing a deadline in front of the entire team, and then only telling them privately when they’ve done great work, will erode the value of your praise and destroy trust.
When it comes to supporting your team, be mindful above all else. If you wouldn’t sacrifice quality for speed in dealing with a customer, don’t do it internally, either.
It’s easy to lose that feeling of connectedness when we no longer see each other every day.
Go out of your way to create opportunities for your team to connect outside of daily work interactions. And don’t let the fact that you might be scared about your company’s future prevent you from having some fun every once in a while.
Find new ways to make your office culture more playful. Whether it’s setting up a Slack channel dedicated to office-friendly jokes or memes, or organizing a virtual happy hour for people to connect after work, one thing is certain:
Happy employees are more resilient, and much more likely to stay with you for the long haul.
Also, try to get the whole company together if you can. While most companies with an office presence have an annual retreat, a virtual retreat can be just as effective at creating a sense of unity supporting positive relationships that can have a ripple effect throughout your company.
You don’t have to be physically present to show up and lead your team with a strong presence.
Simply creating a video for your team about the difficulties you’re facing—and the solutions you’re implementing—can work wonders for morale.
Taking a moment to acknowledge the barriers and challenges the team faces can do EVEN MORE.
Your team needs to see you, and they need to know they can trust you to steer the ship successfully past the iceberg while keeping their best interests at heart.
They need your compassion, empathy and understanding now more than ever. Showing up consistently and qualitatively will help establish the stability your team needs.
Set up regular coaching conversations, and make it known that you’re open to hearing about how personal and emotional challenges might be affecting them at work—then help remove barriers to their success, if you can.
Don’t forget to share your own personal challenges, fears, and hopes for the future, too. This kind of vulnerability can be difficult, but it’s vital to keeping your team anchored, inspired and focused on the purpose and values of your organization.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I’ve been successfully running my business with virtual employees for years. I know what’s worked, and what’s fallen flat.
The key to a successful online team is to recreate the positives of an office environment as closely as possible, while still encouraging your team to enjoy the perks of working from home.
Don’t let that “team” feeling get lost in the transition to a virtual office space. Ensuring that your team is still connecting on a deeper level than just the weekly team meeting goes a long way toward keeping morale high.
Find ways for your team to connect not only to each other, but also to your vision and the future of your business. Find the people who are excited to work toward your company goals, and allow opportunities for them to share that enthusiasm with others.
The working environment at your company is your responsibility; don’t pass the buck. If you don’t like it, take action.
Communicate clearly and openly about EVERYTHING. Expectations, instructions, processes and vision need to be clearly outlined every step of the way. Sometimes this will feel scary or uncomfortable, but it’s a critical step in establishing trust and moving forward as a team.
Lower your expectations without sacrificing excellence. This doesn’t mean accepting bad work. It means understanding that everyone is dealing with unprecedented levels of stress and uncertainty, and some days, all they’ll be able to handle is task-oriented work.
You might need to try a bit harder than normal to find what motivates your team members, and pull out their best work. It’s still important to focus on the bigger picture, but manage your team’s tasks and responsibilities with a loose but firm hand.
Watch for signs of overwhelm. There will be days where all anyone can do is to keep their head above water.
Celebrate successes, both big and small wins, and be authentic when you do.
Breathe deeply and often.
Plan for the future and focus on today. Focus on what’s important, not just on what’s urgent.
If things feel scary and uncertain right now, know that there are things you can do to help yourself and your employees.
If you’re struggling, you’re not alone. A big part of what we do at AMI is train teams to navigate uncertain times, so if you need more help, please schedule a quick and free strategy call with our COO, Kevin Smith, here. We’d love to help you make a difference at your organization.