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Leadership in the coronavirus: How to navigate times of crisis [Interview]

Leadership in the coronavirus: How to navigate times of crisis [Interview] Blog Feature

John Becker

Revenue and Features Editor, Co-host of Content Lab, 15+ Years of Writing and Teaching Experience

March 27th, 2020 min read

Every day seems to bring new developments in the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis.

As businesses scramble to adapt and optimize, steady leadership is essential for decisive action that can chart a course forward.

IMPACT's Chief Operating Officer Brie Rangel know that first-hand.

In this interview, she explains how leaders should steel themselves for the turbulent times ahead.

Leadership in a crisis

John: I want to start with a broad question: What do you see as the biggest challenges for leaders in times of crisis?

Brie: The biggest challenge I see for leaders in times of crisis is essentially holding their team together and keeping them focused.

We're experiencing some pretty unprecedented levels of uncertainty for our health or the health of those we love, our economy, and the future.

I can't take that away as a leader, but I can acknowledge that it’s there, provide support, and be as transparent as possible as we all navigate this together.

John: So much of what people are dealing with is invisible.

It might be their parents being at risk, childcare getting canceled, or having their kids at home. I imagine this means that your awareness and empathy have to be in overdrive to keep up.

Brie: Yes, I think you definitely have to take yourself out of the picture and the assumptions that 'well, I could handle it, and I can do this just fine so everybody else should too.'

We don't know people's situations. We don't know the fears that they're facing for their family.

The best thing we can do is just not ignore it and just do our best to try to help everybody work through it.

Communication is make or break

John: It seems to be a time when there's going to be intense focus on every leader's actions. How can you be sure to communicate effectively at times like these?

Brie: I think it starts with maintaining your own stress level.

It's easy to inadvertently make people feel bad because of how you present yourself and the energy you bring to a conversation or a room. So, skill number one is working on yourself.

When you actually are communicating, I think it's important that you know how to read the room, understand what your employees want to know, but also what they need to know. 

Of course they want to have complete updates about the company, but there's a lot of fake news out there. 

There's financial advice that we could be helping employees with.

It's not necessarily in our purview all the time, but in times like these, I think we need to be a good resource of truthful information for our team in all areas they're worried about. 

Also, as far as reading in the room, watch your humor.

I think although we want to lighten the mood and make people feel better, it could come across as insensitive and not come out the right way. 

Making sure leaders get what they need, too

John: But leaders are people, too — who also have needs. Leaders are also struggling and stressed and financially uncertain.

How do they not run dry in times like this?

Brie: I think it's okay to recognize that you're not superhuman.

For example, I'm seven months pregnant and have a whole lot of worries about how this is going to relate to bringing a child into the world right now,  but if I just pretend it's fine — or, on the flip side, just totally dwell on my own problems — I'm not doing what I need to for the responsibility that I have for everybody in our company.

Here at IMPACT, we've got some really great people that focus on mindfulness and working through some of the emotional challenges that we have.

We're making those resources available to everybody. I actually met with our Chief Learning Officer Chris Duprey yesterday.

Everything was very stressful, with a lot of news happening, and it was really helpful for me to just talk it out with him. 

We also have a business coach here at IMPACT.

We had a meeting with him the other day to help make sure we’re thinking about the right things and making the best decisions for the company, but also modeling the advice we're giving our employees. 

If I tell them to go talk to people or exercise and I do none of it, what does that really say to the company?

John: You've written in the past about how important it is for leaders to show vulnerability. Do those rules change at all in uncertain times? Do you have to be more stoic because employees are looking to you for consistency?

Brie: Absolutely not. I think now, more than ever, if you try to pretend that everything's fine, your team is going to see right through it.

I don't suggest you go on stage and cry in front of your company, but it's perfectly fine to acknowledge that you are seeking help and that you are working on yourself just as you're asking everybody else to.

If you don't, you'll come across as inauthentic as possible and lose all trust with your employees. 

Should we acknowledge the elephant in the room?

John: It feels like there's a balance to find. In some ways it's important to maintain business as usual and maintain routine and to live our lives, but there's also this  elephant in the room at every meeting, at every sales call, at every moment.

Brie: Yes. I think it's really easy to get caught up in watching the news all day or watching my Twitter feed and getting totally consumed by wanting to stay up to date on what the latest is. 

I should be informed, but at the same time, in order to do what's best for everybody in the company and keep everybody and our clients, I need to focus on my work because I see it as my responsibility to our team.

Everything else that's related to COVID I can check on during breaks and after hours.

Do this now: Start a task force and connect with communities

John: So, what is your biggest piece of advice to give any business out there?

Brie: I have two pieces of advice.

First of all, if you haven't already, you should form a task force focused on the needs and changes happening in your businesses. 

Our task force has designated responsibilities and duties based on each member’s role in the company.

For example, one member represents our customers, making sure that we are having proactive communications with them, anything that we should be doing above and beyond our day to day. 

Another member is in charge of internal communication. We've upped our communication to our employees from a weekly all hands to a daily written update because so much happens every day internally and externally. 

Second, I recommend that you connect with like-minded businesses.

We're all in this together.

Although we can't actually be in physical contact, I think we're growing as a community even more so because of everything that’s happening. 

IMPACT put on a client town hall, knowing that all of our clients are in the same boat trying to navigate this.

We are also, through our coaching program, able to join a town hall with other businesses just to understand what are they doing, what ideas can we bring back to our company, and just know we're not in it alone.

Lean into your network and try to share ideas, and lets all help each other get through this.

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