– Especially During Difficult Times
Being a good leader isn’t always easy, and being a great leader is even harder, but trying to be a great leader during an unprecedented global pandemic takes leadership to a whole new level. This pandemic has surreptitiously challenged every leader with the task of actually proving their worth as a true leader and not allowing anyone to carry a potentially empty title by leading on autopilot.
There was a fascinating leadership paradox that occurred during this global pandemic: When we worked the closest to our teams physically, we knew them the least; And now that we are the farthest, physically, than we’ve ever been, we now know them better than we ever have. In this new WFH environment, we’ve had the opportunity to virtually come into the homes of our colleagues. We’ve met spouses, children, and pets. We know what they are binge-watching, what they are cooking, and how they are getting fresh air and sunshine.
“We used to assess our team in how they showed up, but now life has been compressed into one continuum: work, life, home. As leaders we now have to understand our people from a 3-dimensional perspective.
It’s as if we had a one-dimensional work-relationship that lacked true depth until the pandemic hit. Mark Jones, Managing Director in the Corporate and Investment Banking Division of Wells Fargo aptly stated, “We used to assess our team in how they showed up, but now life has been compressed into one continuum: work, life, home. As leaders we now have to understand our people from a 3-dimensional perspective. Now we need to look at each employee and have a full understanding of their entire situation, like do they have elderly parents, do they have kids at home, what are their physical surroundings, etc.”
If we had asked this question of leaders prior to the pandemic, “How well do you know your employees?” it’s arguable that most leaders would believe they knew their inner circle rather well. In hindsight, many leaders might want to change their answer. These new circumstances have challenged all facets of leadership. Leaders must know their employees better so they can effectively help everyone navigate through this difficult time.
Many people view the pandemic as being in the same boat but we aren’t in the same boat at all; more accurately, we are all in the same storm.
Ed Vlacich, the CEO of Lasko Products, had just joined the company in December and then the pandemic hit. He explained, “I have been through many crises before in other positions at other companies. Although I have never led through a pandemic, the past has helped me prepare for this.” As the new man on the block, knowing very few of his fellow Lasko employees, he tapped into something he learned while working abroad in Germany: the coffee klatch. He created 30-minute virtual “Kaffeeklatsches” of 8-10 randomly selected people in a Microsoft Teams meeting. He spoke to more than 300 people in his company this way – most of whom he would not have met in a physical meeting pre-pandemic. The only agenda was that there was no agenda; the conversation was driven by the attendees. Vlacich said, “I met way more people this way than I ever could have if we had been in the office. This is a forum I would never [have] thought about had it not been for the pandemic.”
Round-Two of the Lasko Coffee Klatch has already begun and he sees this continuing beyond the pandemic. Vlacich explained, “These meetings were incredibly inspiring to me. I was blown-away by how committed everyone was to seeing the company succeed during these challenging times.”
Many people view the pandemic as being in the same boat but we aren’t in the same boat at all; more accurately, we are all in the same storm. It is certainly far easier for some to navigate this storm because of the boat they are in and as leaders, it’s critical to know exactly what boat every team member is trying to navigate from.
In the past we didn’t share as much at work because that was considered TMI (too much information), but now it’s almost required. Eric Sorensen, Managing Director in Global Hedge Management for the Chief Invest Office of Prudential Financial discussed managing in a crisis like this, “There’s a lot to be said for being human and acknowledging adversity. It’s fine if they know I am struggling with certain things and I want them to know this is uncharted territory for everyone. My team needs to be candid with me so that I can address their needs, no matter how small they may think it may be. I believe addressing what we previously considered ‘TMI’ is a critical aspect of how leaders can effectively address many of today’s challenges.”
Within this paradox lies the ultimate opportunity for all leaders to rise to a new level of leadership. We are limited only by how far our creative thought will take us. Leadership is about people and we’ve just been given the greatest gift—getting to know our people better and developing a richer relationship. Let’s not squander the gift.
BETH FITZGERALD, Executive Coach and Best Selling Author
Beth Fitzgerald is an executive coach, blogger, international speaker and trainer, as well as the author of the best-selling book The Wake Up Call. She is also a wife, mother of four children (and two big dogs), and outdoor enthusiast who lives near Princeton, NJ. In her previous life, she worked on Wall Street.