I was struck recently by a comment made by Richard Allison, the CEO of Domino’s Pizza, during his Q1 Earnings Call. Specifically he called out the speed with which they had taken the proverbial pizza cutter to the processes that governed how they do business.

we’re a 60-year-old brand that has rewritten most of our standard operating procedures in the last six weeks

Richard E. Allison – CEO Domino’s Pizza Inc

In a similar vein, GM CEO Mary Barra talked about how her Kokomo, Indiana team shifted from manufacturing vehicles to manufacturing ventilators, and doing “work that has happened over — what normally would take probably weeks — has happened in days and sometimes hours.”

LVMH was able to shift their production lines from indulgent fragrances to manufacturing hand sanitizer (still in gorgeous bottles) almost immediately.

And Zoom donated technology to K-12 schools; the FDA fast-tracked validation and testing of potential virus treatments, companies set up hardship funds for their employees and/or paid bonuses or increased wages for their workers.

We’ve seen so many instances where teams got things done – faster than they ever had before

COVID-19 delivered a set of circumstances and operating conditions that no leader and no team was sufficiently well prepared for. I have spoken with executives of major financial institutions and heads of global supply chains and the message is pretty consistent: no amount of scenario forecasting had this scenario as a likely potential outcome for 2020. Given that, it is curious then that companies have been able to respond so fast to act on something that they never planned for, yet they often take forever to act when they have had weeks, months or even years to plan.

Does this mean that we can get more done when we don’t plan?

Yes, and no. What happened at Domino’s, and at GM, and at hundreds if not thousands of companies was that the situation was moving too fast for any single person or any single team to control. Usually, when our world is moving slowly enough, control is our friend. We control processes that will deliver a predictable outcome. We even control people (start a shift at 6am, break at 10am, etc.). But with the onset of COVID-19, no-one could manage this – the situation was frankly out of the hands of even the best controller that any company has.

Instinctively, the smart leaders knew this. They knew the limits of their ability to control, and they set up the conditions for their teams to thrive (even amidst conditions that were unpredictable). At Domino’s, they put the right people into the room to consider how their standard operating procedures needed to change so that they could continue to serve their customers and protect employees. Because they had the right people in the room, they were able to make changes in record time. Mary Barra didn’t go and try and set up the plant in Kokomo, rather she left it to the people who know how to get it done fast. And at LVMH they let the plant managers make the change over from cosmetics to hand sanitizer.

What’s your return on your human capital?

The Domino’s Pizza story has intrigued me for a long time … a company that is essentially a fast-food franchise operation, with a stock price that has risen from a low of around $3 in November 2008 to a high of around $360 as of April 30, 2020. A market cap of around $14 billion means that Domino’s is valued higher than brand names like HP Enterprises or Stanley Black and Decker. And their leadership messages are consistent – take care of employees, empower employees to do what is right. The fact that their first two corporate values are to “do the right thing” and to “put our people first” should not be a surprise. You don’t get results like this without fully leveraging the power of your human capital.

So how are the best leaders supporting their teams right now?

  1. They are creating the environment for their teams to function with what I call high-octane independence. That means that leaders outline the priorities and then they get out of the way and make the space for the people who have the experience and know-how to just get it done.
  2. They are encouraging teams to act fast and to learn fast. In most cases, we don’t have the benefit of weeks or months – we need to get to a viable solution and get it into the world.
  3. They are working hard to control the natural fear response that we will all experience – and they do this by trying to create a sense of predictability, creating a sense of control, and reminding their teams that there is an end in sight (you can read more about this here).

The bottom line is this: The most effective leaders know that they don’t have all the answers. Especially now, they are actively stepping back so that their teams can step forward. Leaders stepping back to create space is the new leaning in.