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Leading Through the Unknown

Dave Keil

Leading Through the Unknown

Lessons on leading purposefully through the COVID-19 pandemic

I lead a team of 40, coach eight CEO’s who lead retail service brands, and I have been speaking with hundreds of small business owners through the COVID-19 crisis of 2020. This article shares actions I have taken as a leader during times of great uncertainty.

1)     Be a visible leader

It is important to be out front and visible to your team. When there is a gap in information or connection,people tend to fill that void with their own fears or assumptions.  Even if your natural leadership style is to delegate through others, you must get in front of the team – visually if possible – and communicate often.  I communicate on three levels:

-         start by acknowledging the current state or naming the uncertainty; be transparent and real

-         set clear goals – beginning with goals that impact people’s hearts (e.g. your health comes first)

-         create a path of action, at a high level,even if issues have an unknown end date

I have used short videos, recorded powerpoint presentations, written twice-weekly formal email communications, held video conference calls and placed many, many phone calls. Multiple points of contact let the team know that their leader is engaged, caring and present.

2)     Be principled and cognizant of legacy

In times of stress, true character is revealed. For those of you who have honed your skills of leading on purpose, communicating well and prioritization – now is the time to step up and put those skills to work.  No one has all of the answers, but teammates will respect those in the arena with them. While it is natural to make knee-jerk changes in times of crisis, it is most important to make decisions based on principles, share those principles,and remind people of the larger goals of the organization. These are the behaviors that people will remember when the crisis passes.

3)     Create touchpoints, even if you don’t have much to say

I am a big fan of all-hands meetings. Open,live and regular communication to the whole team is one of the most effective means of establishing credibility, trust and speed of decision making.

During COVID-19, I’ve held weekly all-hands meetings and established daily check ins via our project management software, re-creating the same ‘water-cooler’ or ‘walk-by’ conversations that are organic in a face-to-face workplace.  Touchpoints make clear that my top priority is for remote teams or individuals to remain connected to the overall mission of the organization, and to reinforce that their role and impact is valued and seen.

 

4)     Lay out simple and clear goals, and repeat them often

During the COVID pandemic of 2020, I laid out three simple goals for our teams, and started every group call or team communication by repeating them:

1)     Health and safety of our team – I promised everyone that as decisions were made, we would put the health and safety of our team and our families first

2)     Profit protection – even though we did not historically speak of cashflow as a large team, I made clear what we needed for our business to survive. I explained why ‘cash was ‘king’ during this period. This transparency made subsequent cost saving decisions easier to rollout.  

3)     Engage clients and team: our business is primarily person-to-person service provision, so we had to quickly shift to creative means of engaging our end clients, but also our team members. I believe brand value can be enhanced in times of uncertainty, and we are working to that end.

 

5)     Engage people’s heads, heart and hands

Capturing people’s heads via knowledge and information, goals and strategies is necessary. Engaging people’s hearts – by checking ‘on’ them, not just ’in with’ them is even more important.In times of uncertainty, a casual ‘how are you doing’ does not suffice. I have moved to asking clear questions about a family member, challenges of a project,or asking about feelings to get to the heart of the matter.

 

Finally, I have found that getting people focused on their area of impact/control vs area of concern is the quickest way through a significant challenge.  When a team’s hands are busy, they are creating a new beginning and are less likely to get trapped in ‘how things used to be’.

 

6)     Get creative / have fun

In times of change it is also important to have fun.  We used the crisis as fuel for creativity and invention. Several of our businesses created new income streams in a matter of days; when consumers weren’t able to come to us, we went to them virtually. What would normally have taken months to plan and accomplished in a matter of days.  These ideas were helped along by gathering functional groups of different concepts together (CEO’s, field operations leaders, marketers) to cross-pollinate new ideas, and create cross-brand programs (like exposing free virtual workout or beauty-tip classes to new audiences).

 

Despite being forced to work remotely, our team members and portfolio companies’ leaders have actually grown closer.  We’ve worked out together (virtually), held Friday happy hours on Zoom, and shared favorite books and Netflix shows during our daily check ins.

 

Leading during uncertain times is a challenge. I hope a few of these ideas help you and your teams not only survive, but thrive as you lead into the unknown.