Viewpoints: How to lead during the COVID-19 crisis

Best practices to confront this challenge

By John Howman -May 11, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis is clearly the black swan event of your business career and maybe even your life.

While we’re still faced with an unprecedented amount of uncertainty, I found this quote from retired U.S. Amy Gen. Stanley McChrystal comforting: “If this is your first crisis in life, I welcome you to the game. If you have scar tissue from previous experiences, what you know is, we are going to come out of this. And we are going to come out of this better than we went into it.”

Work-at-home productivity anxiety – real and imagined

So far, feedback from Vistage members about employees working from home has been universally positive. While it’s unlikely a large percentage will work there permanently, we’ll definitely have more remote workers in the months ahead.

If you have teammates who fit the Patrick Lencioni definition of the “ideal team player” as hungry, humble and smart, you likely see no productivity drop. In fact, those folks might be even more productive since they aren’t distracted by the “lovable slackers” at the office.

Besides, converting one to two hours of daily commuting into productive work time is a definite advantage. But there’s a legitimate concern about the social isolation of our new remote workforce.

Best practices from Vistage members:

1. Conduct video one-to-one meetings. Lisa Reardon, chief executive officer of Pewaukee-based Owners Edge, an ESOP holding company, says managers should conduct remote one-to-one meetings with their direct reports two or three times a week. Ask:

  • How’s your workload?
  • How are you doing emotionally and personally?
  • What can I do to help you?

2. Make the workplace even safer. Reardon is reconfiguring work spaces to accommodate social distancing and taking other safety measures, which will likely become a permanent part of work life. It’s important to consider all aspects of safety – physical, emotional and psychological.

3. Communicate, then communicate some more. Bill Goggins, CEO of Harken Manufacturing in Pewaukee, sends video messages to his entire organization once or twice a week. Great messaging includes gratitude to those team members who continue to work, reinforcement that their work is important, confirmation the organization is strong and will get through the current crisis, and acknowledgement that it’s OK to be worried.

If you can’t do a video, make sure you’re emailing or texting everyone much more frequently than you have in the past.

4. Face reality with a positive attitude. Crystal Miller, CEO of Kenosha-based Frontida Assisted Living, shared “The Stockdale Paradox” with our group and her entire staff. James Stockdale, a U.S. Navy vice admiral and aviator, emphasized that balancing realism and a positive mental attitude was the key to his surviving over seven years as a POW in Vietnam. That principle applies now too!

5. Thrive, don’t just survive. David Vroom is the CMO of Houston-based Chief Outsiders and a great friend to Vistage. His advice was to move from the “survive” mentality to the “thrive” mentality. He also advises you prepare for the “pivot,” which many businesses will need to do to thrive. Do a start/stop/continue exercise to consider what your organization could do to create new opportunities, products or services. Figuring out what to stop doing can be just as important.

Strategic human resource management

Keep everyone engaged with the organization. Now more than ever, it’s critical to have a true HR leader on your leadership team. If your organization is smaller and can’t afford a strategic HR leader, hire a fractional HR consultant.

Strategic HR management should move company culture forward and focus on improving employee engagement. And you need a comprehensive strategy. I like the Predictive Index model of talent optimization. Their model is “Diagnose, Design, Hire and Inspire.” Just like you need a corporate strategic plan, marketing plan, sales plan and budget, you need a talent optimization plan.

Embrace opportunity

Finally, look for opportunities in the current crisis. Observe and reward the heroes in your organization. Evaluate and strengthen your company’s organizational purposes. You’ll likely be able to add some ideal team players. And if your business is strong, it may be a good time to look at acquisitions.

Things are tough right now, no doubt, almost surreal some days. But in the words of General McChrystal, “Welcome to the game.”