Looking to the Future

By Alan Millard - April 2020

Thoughts from the Field

The lives of leaders are often a roller-coaster ride with one challenge rolling into another, and this crisis is just a bigger dip than normal. Over the long term, regardless of where you are in the ride, the need for team cohesion and organizational clarity are even more important than ever. When working with leaders in the field, I have found that they have a three-dimensional role that needs to stay in balance:
  1. Solving any execution problems tactically
  2. Leading with your organisational clarity and setting goals
  3. Developing your company’s capabilities, teams and people
 
During a crisis like this, that problem-solving dimension can easily take up all your time to the detriment of the others. However, if you find time to remind your people of the reason your company exists and its relevance post-crisis – if you lead with clarity – it will help keep them grounded and calm.
 
A few weeks back, I worked with the leadership team of an Irish company in the travel industry just when all flights and travel were being cancelled. We started the day with them under huge pressure, their revenues down by 80 percent and the bank was threatening to withdraw their revolving credit facility. They could have panicked and cancelled, but the CEO knew now was the time to be together as a team. The CFO had to duck out, but we stayed with it.
 
Firstly, we reviewed their organizational clarity: really digging into it and having an open conversation about what was working and what wasn’t. We made adjustments and came up with some actions for improvements. As we worked, the team relaxed, was brought together, and reminded themselves that their purpose, values and goals hadn’t changed. We then practiced vulnerability-based trust with each person talking about how they were motivated, how this crisis affected them personally, and what they needed from the team.
 
This was an emotional session but afterwards the team was so pumped up to get into their thematic goal, plan on how to survive this crisis and come out stronger. This plan has now aligned the leadership and galvanized the whole company, and they are working through it. (We met the CFO later for dinner – he was in good spirits in spite of having had 26 phone calls that day with banks! We spent some time bringing him up to speed – then we focused on having a ‘craic’, or having fun, which is one of their core values.)
 
Leaders of companies on the front lines of helping us through the pandemic may find themselves focusing on leading with clarity and solving problems. However, there are a lot of leaders whose business is slow; your challenge is to keep your people productively engaged. It’s a great time to put some attention to developing your company’s capabilities, teams and people. A few things to keep in mind:
 
  1. Remote leadership will be more common
This restriction to our homes is forcing us to become more effective with remote working and managing remote teams. All the tools were there already but our leadership and team approaches have remained centred on face-to-face interaction. Remote working was treated as a compromise through geographic distance but now it will become a more genuine choice and integrated into everyday leadership. Use this time to get really good at remote working and assume that this may be the new normal way to lead:
  • Evolve long-term, remote leadership habits to maintain team cohesion (remote team offsites, remote daily check-ins)
  • Experiment with the rhythms of the day (booking meetings from, say, 9:05-9:55am to allow for break times, stay on for post-meeting chats)
  • Figure out how to have social time online (sit on the sofa with coffees, set time for anyone to join for water-cooler chats)
  •  
    1. Prepare for the bounce
    It’s easy to over-focus on the immediate crisis, but part of your survival will depend on keeping the future in mind and preparing for the recovery. Once the big decisions are made, you can delegate the short-term tactical responses to cross-functional action teams to free up time for longer term planning. This will give your people the confidence to stay focused on those daily pressures – knowing that you are focusing on the future. Specifically:
  • Accelerate development of your internal products and capabilities with any spare capacity from the reduced demand
  • Continue technical, team and personal training to come out of this stronger and add something positive to your people’s day
  • Over-communicate your plans for the future; every day there will be new distracting facts and news, counteract this by reminding people what hasn’t changed
  •  
    1. Reflection Time
    Finally, don’t fill your diary with tasks and one-on-ones. This can also be a time to reflect – use your daily walkabout to remember what is important. Your people need you to be grounded and confident and this means you need to slow down and focus on clear decision-making rather than action. Now, more than ever, is your time to ensure that you and your company come out of this stronger and better positioned to contribute to making this world a better place.