We recognize that while our goal is to share our stories in an attempt to help others, we can only speak for ourselves. None of us are essential, work in health care or are living in a COVID hot spot. While we all have different experiences, we quickly realized that our stories often described what sounds like the stages of grief, others relate to it as classic change management (ok, maybe it is just us HR nerds, but you know what we mean). As you’ll read in this article and in those to follow, all three of us have clearly experienced our own level of denial, resistance, exploration/curiosity and acceptance. As we write this, we are still in the middle of the story, but we are actively working to accept the continuous waves of COVID, not by simply bracing and letting them wash over us, but by leaning into them and letting the crisis carry us to a new place. The lessons we learned that we’ll talk about in part 3–to be kind to yourself and others, to support your teams, and to lean on your network during challenging times–are takeaways we are sharing in hopes to carry us forward, understanding we’re still finding our way through this storm. Our hope is our words will help bring you some healing, offer some tips for managing your own experience and most importantly, remind you that you’re not in this alone.
This Time It’s Personal
Tracy Burns, CEO Northeast HR Association (NEHRA) and Co-Founder of Hytched
On March 5th the NEHRA Board and I made the gut wrenching decision to postpone our Annual Diversity & Inclusion Awards Gala. It was to be the celebration of our 25th year and all of the plans were in place. Unbeknownst to me, it would be the last day I would see my co-workers in person for months to follow. I’ve worked with this team of people through nearly every big life moment you can imagine; marriages, pregnancies, the purchase of new homes, as well as divorce, health issues, family crisis and the loss of loved ones; yet nothing could’ve prepared me for what was to come.
In addition to leading a non-profit, I’m also the mother to two teenage boys and the oldest daughter of aging parents, both of whom experience a host of health issues on a good day. So my lens, like my many of you, is multifaceted. As I reflect on the early stages a few things became clear: there is a lot we don’t know, things are changing rapidly, and most notably this time, it’s personal.
Never before have we experienced a pandemic of this magnitude; a personal health crisis with such a significant impact on business. As leaders we had to get personal in ways we may have not before in order to make sure we were making the best decisions not just for the future of our organizations, but for the people who work for and with us. This isn’t to infer that we didn’t know or care about our employees, but chances are, especially in large organizations, the depth of personal information on each person varies based on role, work location, hierarchy, etc. COVID-19 forced us to connect with people to at the very least get enough information to inform broader decisions, but also to understand and appreciate how it was impacting people on a personal level; to hear their concerns and work to make decisions that would keep them and their loved ones safe.
In the nearly 20 years I spent nearly 20 years in corporate HR roles, where I became adept at compartmentalizing my roles. Professional life was in one box, personal life in another; rarely did the two overlap. While those distinctions have become less prominent during the 10 years I’ve been the CEO of a non-profit, it wasn’t until COVID-19 that I felt them really come crashing down. I’ll be honest, it was both terrifying and comforting.
When it comes to professional relationships, I hit the jackpot. In fact, many of my professional colleagues are also friends. I know the NEHRA team pretty well. I know the Board members pretty well and I have many great relationships within the NEHRA community. The COVID-19 crisis changed our conversations and fundamentally changed our relationships (for the better). We began talking about real stuff, including the challenges of working at home with a spouse, lack of daycare for small kids, how to keep our stubborn parents from catching the virus; we shared worries about our own mental health and the highs and lows of that come with isolation. We shared concerns of the impact layoffs and furloughs and the long term financial impact; we had conversations about our kids, who were missing sports, proms and graduations; we talked about fear and gratitude and propped each other up on the dark days and cheered each other on during the better days. It left me feeling connected, exhausted and grateful.
Like many of you, the first few weeks of isolation for me were really a blur; everything slowed down and sped up at the same time, leading to an adrenaline rush, punctuated by interrupted sleep patterns, working at all hours of the day and night, poor eating habits (read: Lucky Charms for dinner). Before long, kids were home from school and college, TikTok became a “thing” and parents were faced with balancing a new dynamic in the house 24/7 all while pretending we weren’t scared to death. In essence, we did our best to tread water in this “storm” while trying not to panic at the lack of shoreline.
Then we added in the “zoom” madness, where things that would normally have been handled via email or a phone call, turned into virtual meetings. We did this to satisfy our need for human contact, and in an attempt to keep our teams engaged; all great reasons, but it required us to further blend personal and professional lives, to invite people into our homes, to see the interactions we have with partners, children and pets, all of whom we renamed our “co-workers”. Multiple happy hours and family holiday celebrations were held virtually; all in an attempt to fill the void normally filled by human contact.
Days were filled with processing massive amounts of information about the virus; only to learn that what we thought was true one day, was not true the next. I became glued to TV and social media outlets, trying to gather enough info to make decisions that were good for the HR community, the NEHRA team and for the longevity of our business.
Then came George Floyds murder on May 25th; a pandemic within a pandemic. If COVID-19 didn’t force us to get personal, to get real with ourselves and others, this certainly did. As the mother of multi-racial sons, our home has always been a place where we talked about race a lot (or so I thought). Not only did Floyd’s murder fan the flames on a 400 year old legacy of racism in this country, it came in the middle of a pandemic, where black communities were already being disproportionately impacted resulting in higher cases of COVID-19 and death rates upwards of 3.5 times the national average. My black friends and colleagues would argue it wasn’t any different than the death of countless black men and women, boys and girls, that happened before and have happened since; but I think we can all agree that the timing and optics lead to a much different reaction across the globe.
As we sought out ways to better support our black friends and colleagues, our conversations turned to allyship, anti-racism and white fragility. It required us all to look inward and be honest with our own biases and our own lack of action. For someone who felt pretty good about my work in this space, I came to the quick realization that I hadn’t even scratched the surface; not as a parent or a friend and certainly not as someone who has had countless opportunities to step up and speak out. I’m grateful for trusted colleagues who held, and continue to hold, space for me as I strive to be a better ally and much needed voice in our community.
Needless to say, the last 6 months have been life altering for all of us. It’s offered a lot of opportunity to get honest with ourselves and to lead differently. Our goal is to take the good stuff, shed the bad stuff and build a future that allows us to be more compassionate towards each other and ourselves.
Things I Learned About Myself:
- I really don’t like ambiguity: If you’re familiar with Myers Briggs, I’m a “T” (thinker). I came to the realization fairly early on that I was going to have to make a lot of decisions without a lot of information. At times this was liberating, but most of the time it left me feeling anxious. Over time however, I’ve learned to appreciate my gut instincts and lean on my own intuition when I don’t have all of the data to support a decision. I’ve learned to trust my creative side, something that has been suppressed for way too long. I also recognize that I’ll look back on this time and wish I’d done some things differently and I’m okay with that as well.
- Self-care and compassion is a requirement, not a luxury: Going into the pandemic I was doing kickboxing 3 days a week, meditating on a semi-regular basis and fueling my body with healthy food, lots of water and no alcohol. By mid April I’d missed nearly a month of kickboxing (I even bought a boxing bag, it’s still in the box), I replaced broccoli and chicken with Lucky Charms and Sugar Babies (don’t judge) and I drank far more coffee than water. The only form of self-care I did was binging on Netflix (which only temporarily helped my mood and was a killer on my waistline). Although I cannot pinpoint the moment, somewhere along the way I hit rock bottom (it was likely the first time I put on jeans). Ironically, I completely lost sight of the importance of self-care during a time when I needed it the most.
- Vulnerability trumps looking good: I’ve read everything that Brene Brown has ever written. Her words about shame and vulnerability resonate with me at a “soul” level. As someone who tends to keep things close to the vest, especially when feeling vulnerable, I’ve often missed opportunities to connect with people on a deeper level when given the opportunity. While I’ve worked really hard the past few years to be more vulnerable, this pandemic continues to force me into unchartered territory. While I thought I had long shed the notion that I have to have all of the answers, old insecurities began to pop up during the early days of this crisis. I’ve long prided myself on my resilience and portraying someone who “has her sh*t together. I’ve been leading NEHRA for 10 years and a parent for 17 years, I’ve got this, right?
It’s been over a month since I started writing this article. This process has helped me heal, to slow down and reflect on the silver linings and to allow my faith to outweigh my fear. Today I’m taking better care of my physical and mental health; I’m leaning into the ambiguity and allowing it to fuel my creativity and most importantly, I’m learning to give myself and those around me much more grace in hopes that our collective vulnerability will help create a more meaningful existence.
This is Part 1 of a 3-part series on leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. You can follow the authors on LinkedIn and Twitter via the links below: