We are in the midst of a “black swan” event that will have drastic, global economic consequences. No company is immune.
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As the world scrambles to make sense of and respond to the coronavirus threat, leadership will be tested in unimaginable ways. Each day brings jarring new information that requires system-wide response. Sequoia Capital is calling this period the “black swan of 2020.” Black swans are rare unexpected events like 9/11 that impact global activity. After living through downturns for 50 years, Sequoia notes the companies that survive are able to act decisively and quickly. But how do you act quickly in the midst of so much uncertainty and human risk? At the macro level, successful companies will “mirror biology as Darwin surmised; those who survive are not the strongest or the most intelligent, but the most adaptable to change”.
Managing change is a special leadership skill. When you’re navigating uncharted waters, slashing budgets and making changes, good leaders will stay attuned to people’s emotions and continue to invest in their teams.
Here are 5 things that leaders can do to navigate this crisis and emerge stronger than ever.
Confront the brutal facts while maintaining faith that you will prevail
Adopt the mental framework of the Stockdale Paradox. Admiral Stockdale survived 8 years as a prisoner in the Vietnam war with this concept. He was able to stay positive without falling trap to the blind optimism of fellow prisoners who failed to confront the reality of their situation. There is no time for denial in this crisis: Stay vigilant to the harshest realities and fast-moving changes. Communicate the brutal facts directly to your team while maintaining confidence that you will get through it together. This will happen faster for teams with high trust. When they believe that you have their backs, they value the truth and will work together to find the best paths forward.
Don’t assume you know what people are afraid of
It may seem obvious to surmise that people are most worried about getting sick or job security. But there are many other things that might matter to different people. Working from home might cause some to lose visibility and information they get informally from important people. People need different things to feel safe, and it’s important to find out what matters to them. Double down on your listening to ask what people are afraid of losing as this crisis continues. Don’t just focus on tactical communication around hygiene or travel protocol; make sure you allow people to express any emotional concerns they may have. Doing this allows you to help them sort real losses from perceived ones. And when there is real loss coming, deliver that information directly and quickly.
Get ready for chaos
With so much out of our control, leaders will need to adopt a crisis management approach. Expect anxiety to rise and motivation to suffer. Pick a few priorities to focus on while regaining balance. Set smaller goals with frequent checkpoints so that people can feel some sense of positive movement. Redesign operating rules, even temporarily, to address the needs of this time. Pay close attention to managing stress — including your own.
Do virtual team-building
As companies are encouraging more and more employees to work from home, virtual team-building becomes an imperative. With the loss of informal, personal contact you will need to find new ways to stay connected. Understanding the working styles, motivators and stress behavior of the other people on your team will yield the greatest productivity and help everyone to stay aligned when working remotely. Build in time during one-on-ones for personal check-ins. Think creatively about how to keep people motivated and small ways to get groups to continue building relationships over video conference and instant messaging channels.
Envision the new beginning
Incorporate learning as you go through this time. Ask how this will affect the future of your enterprise and make adjustments. As with any downturn, there are opportunities for creativity and change. Recessions create new problems that can turn into business opportunities. Some incumbents will fall and open doors for new startups. Smart investors will continue to look for good ideas and people. Stay vigilant in seeking out options that might pay off when things return to normal.
The future state will bring a new normal that no one can predict today. All we can do is prepare ourselves to walk straight into the chaos, bringing our personal best to rally the troops through these challenges into the new day.