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:
- 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.
- 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.
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
- 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.
- 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.
“There’s no success without successors.”
An old catchphrase that simply means as you climb the ladder of success, it’s a lot easier on the next rung if you’ve groomed someone to take your place in the organization’s leadership hierarchy.
That could be great, but it could also be terrible. It all depends on how you lead and mentor your team and the role you play(ed) in succession planning.
Leaders who care about helping others be successful appreciate those who care for others. Butt snorkelers appreciate butt snorkelers.
Unfamiliar with the term? Butt snorkelers take brown nosing to the next level of kissing ass. They’re the ass-kissers who always side with the boss and will throw a coworker under the bus without thinking twice. Most of us, especially those with military experience, have worked with at least one, and frankly they make my skin crawl.
Okay, this isn’t about butt snorkelers, although that might be a fun topic to spend your next three minutes reading about.
So how do you prepare the next person to take your position? What is the difference between mentoring and leading, and why should you care?
We’ve said it many times, but as the boss, leading by example isn’t a choice… everyone’s always watching, so your only choice is whether to be a good example or a bad one. I had lots of different bosses early in my career; some were good leaders, and some were absolute nightmares. And so it was I was blessed to finally have a boss who was more than a good leader. He demonstrated it the day he said to me, “Kevin, I’m not trying to change who you are, but dammit, you don’t have to you SO HARD all the time.” (Thanks again, Mike.)
What differentiated him from being a good leader to all the Airmen in the unit and a great mentor to me and others was his desire to make the organization even better in the future without him at the helm.
Mentoring takes leading to the next level. A leader develops her team for the benefit of the organization and for the individuals’ growth and advancement. A mentor selects individuals based on knowledge gained from leading and developing them with a longer view of how they could be important members of the senior leadership team in the future. Leading individuals typically lasts only as long as the employer-employee relationship exists; bosses come and go as do team members. A mentor-mentee relationship could span decades and isn’t limited by a common workplace.
While preparing one of your team members to take over your responsibilities in your absence – and it would be close to negligence if you didn’t – don’t assume it should be someone who always gives the answers you’re looking for. Mentoring one of your team members goes far beyond preparing them to do a particular job… you want to identify the people who care more about organizational success than they do their own and prepare them to be willing to step into any role that will make the organization better. If that’s not already part of your leadership repertoire, it might be time to rethink that.
Stepping up the leadership game to effective mentorship requires a more intimate – not too intimate, please – relationship with the mentee. It needs to be an intentional effort about gift discernment, using examples from daily life and work as coaching examples of how to handle different situations, setting personal development goals, and even future career planning. While the military has made the term “whole person” almost infamous, mentorship should indeed delve into the individual’s work-, family-, community-, and self-related goals to prepare them well beyond their next job.
So, here’s a few tips on making the mentor-mentee relationship work:
- Be present. This is not a time to multi-task.
- Don’t feel like you need to give a continual stream of advice.
- Create a safe space. No Judgy McJudgeface. You both have to feel free to be honest and open.
- Be truthful. I’m not saying use the truth like a club, but you have to be able to share the honest, unvarnished truth.
- Share personal experiences. We’ve often learned from our mistakes; give them the opportunity to learn vicariously.
- Keep confidences. Violating this trust will destroy the relationship.
Mentoring isn’t for everyone. Some leaders lack the humility to share personal stories of failures and mistakes, choosing success stories and arrogance instead. Some leaders can’t spare the extra time a commitment to mentorship takes. Some leaders are uncomfortable with the level of trust and transparency it takes. I suffered from all of those at first, but when I look back over the decades, I now only measure career success in terms of the people I’ve mentored as they worked to be successes in their own right.
As I said, the mentor-mentee relationship can be a long-standing and trusted one – one that can easily grow into a collaborative effort, a partnership, or maybe even a lifetime friendship. While not always butterflies and rainbows, it could be one (or many) of the most rewarding relationships you’ll ever have.
It’s up to you, leaders.
Last week was my anniversary. After exactly 1,722 weeks of wedded bliss, I thought it might be time to give my wife some credit for the leadership lessons I’ve learned from her. No, she’s not a leadership guru, a coach, or a high-powered executive in some Fortune 100 company. She is, however, a damn good Physical Therapist who has zero interest in being part of the management morass she’s been subject to over the last 34 years.
And, trust me, she knows the difference between good and bad leadership behaviors. I know this because I’ve heard about every single one.
While I learned most of what I know about corporate leadership development and executive coaching from my best friend, Kevin (yes, Berchelmann), I learned about how to be a leader and how to develop leaders by doing it. Lead is an active verb – a skill that can’t be learned by just reading about it, and it requires building relationships – an activity that can’t be practiced when we’re by ourselves.
No, learning how to lead comes through doing, and getting good at it is, at times, messy and painful. Kevin and I don’t help people learn leadership skills that apply only to them office; these are life skills that apply to every situation where we interact with other people: at home and the office, with friends and family, in sports and professional associations, and through volunteering and military service.
We see good leadership behaviors, and we try to emulate them. We watch bad leaders and try to avoid their behaviors like the plague. Emulate and avoid are also active verbs, and I included try because we aren’t and won’t always be successful.
Just ask my wife.
Speaking of my wife, here are some leadership skills she taught me (or is still trying to teach me) that I’ve found beneficial:
- When you’re wrong, be quick to admit it. I am often wrong but never in doubt. Just kidding, I know when I’m wrong. There can be no covering up or blamestorming; that just makes it worse. People know when we’ve got it wrong, so we just need to admit it, apologize sincerely and get over it. No one gets it right every time, and while being wrong can be a blow to the ego, the sooner we correct the mistake, the less damage it tends to cause.
- When you’re right, don’t gloat. (“I told you so” is for second graders.) When we correct or give guidance, we can always do it in a way that doesn’t make others feel stupid or demeaned. Few things destroy a good relationship quicker than that.
- Speaking of relationships, we’re only able to influence others because we have a relationship with them. I don’t particularly give a $#!+ what strangers think about me, but I do care about the feedback I get from those I care about. Similarly, people generally don’t care what we think unless they respect us (unless they just like to be unhappy), and they won’t respect us without knowing and having a relationship with us. The ability to influence others to put forth effort to achieve a shared goal doesn’t exist without a relationship. We don’t have to be buddies, but they have to believe we genuinely care.
- Your opinion has less value if you express it the very first second you form it. (Shooting from the hip only works in the movies.) When we shoot off our mouths, we clearly haven’t taken time to consider the message we’re trying or likely to get across or how the receiver will interpret our words… especially if we’re angry or frustrated. The old “count to ten” rule actually works when we use it.
- If you need help, ask for it. (“I got this” doesn’t always git ‘er done.) Most of us suck at asking for help, and while I’ve written about this before, it’s worth repeating: it’s better to ask for help early when we need it than wait until it becomes a crisis. Earlier allows us to make a needed course correction while later affects everyone involved in the product/service delivery chain. Needing help isn’t a sign of weakness. Quite the contrary, it’s a sign that you have your feces collocated and you’re comfortable and confident in your own skin.
- “Because I said so” rarely ends the discussion. (“But why?”) Simon Sinek has a great TED Talk about explaining the why. Directive leadership (management) may be effective in a crisis or for a safety issue, but explaining the ‘why’ contributes to encouraging – and empowering – others to make good, well thought out choices in the future.
- Finally, nothing helps a bad mood like spreading it around a little. Looking for a little quiet time? Leave a big emotional wake behind you and you’ll get it. ‘Nuff said.
There you have it. If you promise not to tell her, I’ll admit that having this wonderful woman in my life made me a better leader. Everyone who’s ever worked with me or for me knows she’s the saint behind the success.
What interpersonal skills learned from one aspect of your life can you apply as leadership skills in another? Are you willing to try to admit when you’re wrong? Build relationships at work? Hold your tongue? Ask for help? I think everyone will be pleased with the results.
It’s up to you, leaders.
Some years ago, I wrote a piece for this newsletter about malicious compliance and how, as the King of Malicious Compliance, I learned to put the crown down. Something I read the other day reminded me of that piece (and some past behavior I’m not too proud of) and reinforced the importance of clear communication.
One of my favorite malicious compliance behaviors was rigid adherence to poorly worded policy memos. Following the Letter of the Law while intentionally violating its intent brought about an opportunity for me to rub someone’s nose in it (Words mean something!) without admitting I’d done something bad.
Don’t get me wrong, policies are necessary in any organization and writing them down keeps them from being WoMs (Word of Mouth). HR needs policies, Safety needs policies, Compliance needs policies, on-site medical personnel need policies – anywhere we need fundamental guidelines for decision making and a general action plan to guide behaviors to desired outcomes. And they should clearly communicate expectations.
But policy memos should NOT be used to correct bad behavior.
That’s called collective punishment, and in some situations is a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Punishing the entire group because of the actions (or inaction) of the few is an egregious abuse of power and a damned poor example of leadership.
If one person accidentally messes in their pants, would you make everyone wear diapers? Lord, I hope not. That person would likely be the guest of honor at a blanket party, which would be bad in an office environment and besides, it’s illegal (and probably against some HR policy).
Real life example: twenty years ago, I inherited a high-performing organization and the 19 policy memos my predecessor had written, including (and I’m not kidding) a specified time limit for changing out of your workout gear into your regular office clothes. All of the memos were the result of one or a few people not adhering to commonly accepted professional behaviors (and hygiene standards), and they were all easy to maliciously comply with.
Flash forward to the present: I was recently a recipient of a new policy memo for a government organization I volunteer with. Its intent was to remind people of the professional behavior expectations for our new virtual meeting environment. Apparently, we needed the guidelines after much flailing during the first attempt at a leadership-only staff meeting and a larger group meeting with a couple dozen Microsoft Teams novices. As you might imagine, not everyone was in their home office looking their best.
First, the memo insisted that we all become proficient in video conferencing (ha!) and went on to establish a dress code and personal appearance standards. Like “no shorts, no chewing gum, no smoking, and no hats.” Really?? Two months without a barber and unless I either braid or bead my hair, the best thing I can do on camera is to wear a hat! In other words, a poorly worded policy memo with lofty expectations from a boss who was irritated by the motley crew’s laid-back appearance and lack of new computer skills.
And just like that, the King of Malicious Compliance made his appearance. With as much snarkasm as possible, the boss said, “I guess Kevin didn’t get the memo, to which I replied, “I did, and I’m not chewing gum, I’m not smoking, this isn’t a hat, and you have no idea what – if anything – I’m wearing below the waist.”
As leaders, why do we leave ourselves open to crap like that? Why don’t we:
- Address the behavior – individually if possible – but sweeping policy statements for the entire organization will leave most everybody wondering what put a burr in the boss’ saddle. And the offending individual(s) will likely miss the point entirely.
- Don’t hold people accountable for performance they’ve neither been trained or equipped for. We weren’t all born with a smart phone in our hand or a laptop in our backpack. Some of us have never even taken an online course, so cut us some slack and maybe make sure we even have a computer at home and a tutorial.
- Clear expectations are set through clear communications. We screw it up all the time because we take for granted that the receiver knows what we mean. (If there’s any doubt, ask your spouse.) Vaguely written communication is unfortunately the norm… crystal clear to the writer but clear as mud to the reader and best used as a cure for insomnia.
- Lastly (and I can’t believe I’m saying this), make sure the policies that were in place two months ago have been updated to reflect this dispersed working environment. Don’t assume that everyone knows what flexibility means… if common sense were actually common, more people would have it.
Everyone’s world has changed, and I don’t know anyone who isn’t unsettled. These are uncommon times that require leaders to step up their games and think differently about how they communicate and set expectations for their teams.
Maybe we should call it uncommon leadership?
It’s all up to you, leaders.
No basketball, but plenty of hoops to jump through
I used to think March Madness was all about basketball and our annual trip to Augusta for the Masters. Nothing like a global pandemic to change my perspective.
COVID-19 has affected nearly every aspect of our lives. These are uncertain and anxiety-producing times. Some changes are temporary (like the toilet paper shortage), but some will have a fundamental and lasting effect on how we view the workplace. Sam Cooke had it right five and a half decades ago when he penned: “…It’s been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change gonna come…”
But what an incredible opportunity for leaders!
Many of us are under a “stay at home” order, and if we aren’t, we’re likely to be soon. And, while there was already a trend toward working remotely in some sectors, most businesses were unprepared to be forced almost overnight into such a radical change. It may be too late for a company to get ahead of the trend, but there are some things that leaders can do to keep at-home workers connected and productive.
First, understand the home situation. Everyone has a different situation. Some have small children that want mommy’s or daddy’s attention. Some have kids on extended spring break who are bored to tears and occasionally have to be fed. Some have a home office where they can work in peace, and some have to work at the kitchen table, distracted by the television, doors slamming, music blaring, and other people FaceTiming. Understanding everyone’s home situation will help you…
Manage expectations but make them clear. It’s going to take time to get used to the new work routine, so have a little patience. Working remotely is rarely a 9 to 5 environment, so remember to focus on the result rather than the process. Describe what success looks like and let them accomplish it. It might even require some flexibility on expected work hours, so if it doesn’t matter if the work gets done between 9 a.m. and noon or between 9 p.m. to midnight, include that in the expectation.
Make sure the proper equipment is available. Not everyone has the same computer set-up at home – assuming they have a computer. The I.T. department may have to work overtime to help remote workers get their equipment configured with the programs they need, especially if they have to do it over the phone.
Communicate, communicate and communicate some more. Remote workers often feel isolated or forgotten. There are plenty of programs like Zoom, FaceTime, and Microsoft Teams that allow leaders to see and talk to remote workers to check in, offer encouragement and help if needed. Kind of like a virtual reality version of “management by walking around,” it doesn’t need to be a long, drawn out conversation. Also, be available and responsive to requests for guidance or help. Remote workers can’t exactly stop by the boss’s office whenever they’re stuck on something.
We’re eventually going to get through this, but we’re going to have to step our game up a few notches when it comes to providing support for our folks. If the company is going to survive this transition to the new normal (whatever that turns out to be), it’s up to the leadership being creative and finding new ways to make their team successful.
It’s up to you, leaders.