For many of us, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic created a fog-of-war moment. No one really knew the seriousness or extent of the event at first; like a military ambush, our initial instinct was to simply take cover, triage, and gather information about the situation. Only weeks and months later could we begin to assess the damage, take stock of our resources, and plan how to survive in this new reality.
[ Are you instilling confidence in people around you? Read also: 10 leadership habits to practice during the COVID-19 pandemic. ]
It’s not often that global incidents alter the way we live for years to come. What those occurrences do, however, is put priorities into strong focus. At my company, our first thoughts were for our customers: “How will this impact their business? Will they be able to continue to function? How can we help?” Very quickly the process shifted to the well-being of our employees: “What are our people going through? What is their new reality? What will they need to be supported through this?”
Figuring out how to pivot and move forward in such situations isn’t easy. While many of us have performed admirably maintaining our business and supporting our colleagues these past months, we’re not yet out of the woods. As leaders, it’s important for us to continually investing in our businesses, our teams, and ourselves.
Planning is now an iterative, continual process
When the unexpected happens (supply chain issues, changing customer demand, major competitive shifts, and so on), organizations must be able to adapt quickly, with a full understanding of the ramifications. Old business models are dying quickly. It’s important to identify and test potential risks and to be ready with alternatives. Whether it involves quickly pivoting to a direct-to-consumer model, moving critical systems to the cloud, or some other major development, businesses need to be ready for significant change at a moment’s notice.
Creating financial and real-time operational models can help us prepare for those significant changes by enabling us to run “what-if” scenarios and to examine the impact of myriad variables. How will cashflow change based on the customer response to evolving conditions? What does it mean for us when the sectors we operate in suddenly face downturns? Each company has a unique set of variables – exploring them empowers the confidence to navigate challenges to achieve better results.
The next step is admitting that whatever assumptions you previously made are probably going to be wrong. This is what happened in 2020, a year of constant course-correction. It taught us that businesses need to be ready; models can no longer have annual, quarterly, or even monthly timeframes. Planning is now an iterative, continual process.
Intentional engagement in a team's well-being
The last year was a huge unintended experiment in work productivity. It proved that knowledge workers can be productive when working from home – at least temporarily and in part. But the change has also exposed a few cracks.
The stress caused by the pandemic has shown that in-person bonding and interaction is essential. People still need to gather, at least periodically, at a common workplace to interact and forge common purpose. Offices still need to exist, although most likely in some evolved form that offers flexibility for both solitary and group effort. It’s become clear that new technologies are needed that will enable employees to work easily, collaboratively, and on a wide range of tasks – regardless of where they happen to be.
But the pandemic exposed another priority for leaders. Whether you manage a team or an entire company, you need to be intentional in assessing your employees’ emotional and physical health. Making routine contact just to make sure people are okay and feel cared for is not a luxury – it’s a necessity. It also provides the opportunity to take the pulse of your workgroup and listen for new ideas.
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The value of transparency
Investing in your organization and your people is vital. But ultimately, the biggest lesson from the pandemic is the importance of transparency.
No one expects leaders to be perfect. Bosses don’t need to have immediate answers for every challenge, nor can they be pillars of strength on every occasion. What employees can and should expect from those in charge, however, is character, empathy, and resolve. When leaders exhibit these traits, it’s okay for them to show vulnerability and to admit when they don’t have a clear answer to a situation.
It’s been a tumultuous year, with more challenges to come. 2020 tested our composure, our grit, and our ability to deliver value to customers in the face of unprecedented adversity.
Yet it also revealed that investments in the things we can control – our workers, our businesses, and ourselves – pay big dividends in times of crisis. What began with chaotic fog may yet produce a great deal of clarity for the future if we’re willing to learn and commit to doing better.
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