Leading in the Crisis After Next
            …success in a post-pandemic environment

To the tune of Come on Eileen: COVID-19, yeah, I want to scream…

As I put pen to paper to write for this month’s newsletter – yes, I’m a late adopter to technology – my mind was blank, as it has been for much of the past several months. On what seems to be the 153rd day of March 2020 spent mostly just with my wife and her dogs, I wondered what more I could contribute to other people’s thoughts about dealing with and leading through a crisis.

Then I noticed that most of the pontification focuses on how leading effectively through the COVID-19 pandemic requires simply changing how we work with and through new virtual tools and processes. Not a bad topic to catch up on if you’ve been resting on your laurels lately, but it falls woefully short on addressing how we could spend more of our time and brainpower planning for post-COVID success. There’s been plenty of talk about the former and much too little about the latter.

And that’s a leadership issue.

Don’t get me wrong. Good on everyone who stepped up to the leadership plate to make sure our remote workers have what they need to be successful at home and for ensuring the safety of our on-site workforce. But it would be short-sighted to think this is going to be the last major disruption to operations in any business sector. Very short-sighted.

As an example, a few years back I was working with a multinational client on a mid-level leadership development effort. SUDDENLY (as in ‘out of the blue’), governments had words, international relations changed, and they lost their biggest customer. Just like that, the company went from business as usual to fighting for survival as they scrambled to create new business and operating models. Short-sighted.

It seems like it wasn’t too long ago when many leaders convinced themselves that they’d spend time thinking about the distant future (six months? twelve? eighteen?) when they had some time to spare. As I’ve lately discovered at home, if I haven’t done those things “I’ll do when I have spare time,” it’s not because I didn’t have spare time but because I didn’t want to.

In the case of planning for the next business disruption, it’s time to want to!

A decade and a half ago, I assumed command of an organization stretched thin by personnel shortages and constant deployments, and we were always scrambling to meet new taskings sent down from higher headquarters. I had this uneasy feeling that if we had to respond to a different kind of crisis – what kind of different crisis than what we were already having in the mid-2000s I didn’t know – we were going to fail miserably. It was way past time for us to think differently about the ‘distant’ future than we had been thinking in the past. We were surprisingly successful as a result… and they still are today.

Here are some of the lessons I learned in the process:

  1. Involve those most affected by the current strain in developing a longer-term solution. From their inputs, we came up with a unique strategy to “share the wealth” with others from different departments who were not so heavily tasked. It tripled the number of teams we could deploy at any one time, making huge difference in productivity, morale, and work-life balance.
  2. Get external constituent buy-in before implementation. It took convincing ‘those who knew better’ – and in some cases a few trial runs – but after accomplishing mission success with team compositions different than the task-masters were used to, their eyes twinkled with anticipation that we would be able to do more than before without additional personnel. With their buy-in, they influenced their other subordinate organizations to adjust their processes to allow us to both accomplish more and respond more quickly.
  3. Newspaper with hot topic “Changes Ahead” lying on office desk.

    Training your leaders is critical. Any new way of doing things requires a different mindset for the leaders of the organization. It’s been said (I heard it from Kevin Berchelmann first) that the only people who like change are those who control it and those who benefit from it. (It’s also been said that the only ones who like change are wet babies.) Leaders can hardly over-communicate with their teams during a transition, so it’s important to be disciplined about having frequent meetings with the leaders of the new process(es) to LISTEN to their feedback. It’ll be evident by both the feedback and the manner in which it’s presented how that team is (or isn’t) adjusting to the new way. If a particular leader is stuck in the old model, find a different role for that person and find new leader for that team. No powerful anchors

  4. Keep your boss informed. This was a lesson that was much harder for me to learn than it should have been (ego, maybe?). I didn’t want my boss in my chili; as long as we were producing, I wanted him to leave us alone. Yeah, right. My boss was just as worried about “how will we handle the next crisis that comes along” as I was, and he had his bosses to pacify. After all, his success was measured in large part by our success – that’s the way it works for every leadership position. After some attitude adjustment, I discovered that by keeping him knowledgeable (not just informed, because he had to be able to articulate it to the most senior levels) about how the changes were making an difference – and would continue to make an even larger impact in the future – he was confident that we were prepared for the ‘crisis after next’. With that, he gave me (and my successor, and his) the freedom to lead without his unnecessary concern.
  5. Don’t neglect the leadership basics. Take care of the team. That means knowing what the people who make up the team have going on in their lives, making sure they have the knowledge and equipment to get their jobs done, and being available to listen – actively listen – to their concerns. They have to know you care or they won’t trust you to lead them.

What’s the next post-coronavirus crisis to shake up your industry? I can’t pretend to know, but as you’ve read repeatedly in this newsletter and elsewhere, leadership hasn’t changed all that much in the past several thousand years. Maybe the better question is: How should you prepare for it today?

It’s up to you, leaders.