Pandemic leadership lessons from 2020, and how we move forward
When Brie Rangel stepped into the role of IMPACT COO at the start of last year, she had no idea what would happen in the coming months. None of us did.
By Liz Murphy
I could make a few quippy, passing remarks here about how 2020, on the whole, had me longing for what some might call "precedented times." But to set the tone for today's conversation with IMPACT COO Brie Rangel, those glib asides feel hollow.
They're throwaway one-liners that, while relatable to some degree I'm sure, greatly diminish the challenges and very real fears organizational leaders — managers, directors, VPs, department heads, business owners, and so on — experienced last year, as we all tried to navigate the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Amid the chaos, we strived for excellence, as we were forced to make immediate decisions about where and when we would stay the course, as well as when and where we would deviate or set aside previously laid plans.
One year later, we still find ourselves in the midst of the madness. Many of us continue to spend almost every waking hour at home, either by ourselves or with our families and children. And our once surging excitement regarding vaccine approvals and distributions have been tempered by perplexing rollout strategies and the emergence of new strains of the virus.
It is at this moment in time, I wanted to sit down with Brie. She stepped into the COO at the start of last year, with a lot of big ideas of how we were going to hit the ground running as a company with a new structure. She was also an expectant mother with her husband, with no idea what would happen in the coming months.
Me: Many of us get caught up in the broad, generalizing statements of "Well, last year didn't go as planned!" But I'm curious — specifically, what were the most impactful leadership challenges you experienced, as you tried to navigate IMPACT (and yourself in a new role) through 2020?
Brie: I knew it was green coming into the COO role, so I knew I had a lot to learn. To that end, I was focused on how to improve myself in some of the areas where I had skill deficiencies. Additionally, when I started the year, my biggest "problems" at the time were centered around how to create more structure and discipline within the company, so we could execute more easily.
On top of that, we knew that, as a company, we wanted to improve our communication. Prior to the pandemic, 60% of our workforce was remote, and we were experiencing issues where communication would sometimes feel like a game of telephone or there that accountability was lacking.
That's where we started last year, focusing on our structures, processes, and establishing a healthy and strong middle management team.
Then March happened.
It was a scary time. I remember thinking, "I don't want us to go out of business."
So, that was my first very specific challenge from last year. Knowing how important it was as our COO to maintain focus on the fact that I didn't want us to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, wherein we gave into the fear of potentially going out of business due to the pandemic.
I mean, you do a SWOT analysis as a business — where you evaluate your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats — but who could have realistically predicted this massive external threat as a business?
Me: You know, it makes me wonder something. Prior to the pandemic, as you mentioned, 60% of our workforce was remote and we had communication issues we had to hammer out. But were their any negative second- and third-order effects that came out of the sudden need to have 100% of our workforce remote quite literally overnight?
Brie: This is exactly why Natalie and I decided to start The Daily IMPACT, a daily "newsletter" sent via Basecamp to all employees at the company, almost immediately after the pandemic began:
It included a clear mission statement at the top.
It shared the remote team-building events we kept in place, as a means to strengthen our company culture and togetherness.
For example, highlights from IMPACT Cribs episodes!
We also highlighted an employee every day who was making a difference, as nominated by their peers.
We didn't want the isolation to breed fear and, most of all, rumors of what was and was not true. We also didn't want people to assume that if there no news, there was only bad news.
Our goal with our newsletter — which had great feedback from the team — was to communicate:
"You know exactly what we know in leadership, and we are not hiding anything. Moreover, we're talking to you like adults, and we all have the same information. That way you know what information we're using to make decisions."
Oddly enough, yes, it's true that everyone suddenly going remote did make our original communication challenges more complex to solve. However, in retrospect, it actually forced us to innovate and accelerate how we solved for those challenges in ways that would likely not have been possible otherwise.
Me: So, clearly there had to be agility, as a leader, during this time. But what were the things you opted to not sacrifice or set aside in the face of crisis, no matter what? And, looking back now, would you have made the same choices again?
Brie: As I speak to you today, I would make every decision again. I felt in my heart very strongly that yes, we needed to get through last year, but we also needed to be stronger on the other side. We couldn't just survive. We had to go on the offensive as a businesses, versus just hoping things worked out, throwing things at the wall to see what stuck.
That included not setting aside the goals we had set at the start of the year. Creating better and more clear structures (and accountabilities) across the company, improving our communication, and so on. So, I wasn't going to let my foot off the gas on that because, again, we couldn't just make it through. We had to emerge from this as a stronger, healthier, and more clear-eyed organization.
And it paid off.
Yes, like most businesses, there were periods where the degree of alarming uncertainty pushed us into survival mode. But as we arrived into the fall, our commitment to improving our processes and structures and communication empowered us to refocus on growth and innovation.
And we could only focus on those growth goals because of our commitment. Because we didn't throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, as soon as the pandemic struck.
Me: We've spoken a lot already about the importance of our success over the past 12 to 18 months being our commitment to strengthening and improving our organizational infrastructure. But what are you talking about, specifically?
Brie: When I talk about improving our structures and processes, I'm referring to three things — our meeting rhythm, job scorecards, and our customer experience.
For our meeting rhythm, that took some time. On top of individual meetings, how often should our leadership team be meeting, how often should our management team be meeting, how often should our departments be meeting, and how often should we be meeting as a company?
The second item, our job scorecards, have been invaluable. A job scorecard makes what every single role in the company is responsible and accountable for, so that way there are no negative surprises in conversations and the pathways for growth for each person are much more clear.
And although the term "scorecard" can have a negative connotation, we're hearing consistently from all levels of the company, how much they love the scorecard process.
Finally, our customer experience was already at a challenging inflection point, but I say "challenging" in the exciting way. We had always been an "agency," and now we were also a product company with the advent of IMPACT+.
At first, we didn't know how to combine our services and our new product in a way that made sense for our customers and our audience. So, as much as it may have been tempting to go for the "low-hanging fruit" as we navigated the pandemic, nailing this experience challenge was absolutely essential to our success.
Me: What's one unexpected, positive surprise that came out of last year?
Brie: I realized how much we can accomplish as a team when we are all actually working as a team.
Me: Can you tell me more about what that means?
Brie: Years ago at INBOUND, HubSpot CTO and co-founder Dharmesh Shah had this little graphic of arrows. He talked about how if all the little arrows were pointed in the same direction, you're going to move much more quickly as an organization. But if those little arrows (or even just some of them) are pointing in different directions, your progress will stall, or at the very least be much, much slower.
At the time, that struck me, but I didn't really see it in action until last year.
We've always had a vision, we've always had company-wide "all hands" meetings, and attempts to get people on board. But feedback from the company showed that, despite our best efforts, we were still struggling to empower our people to really connect the dots between what we were working on and why, and how those initiatives helped us achieve our goals.
The communication changes we made created this fantastic momentum where, yes, during the peak emotional moments of the crisis we hit the goals that we needed to hit and no one had to be laid off. But when we came out of that cloud and became growth-focused again... that cohesion around our vision didn't go away. And that was so exciting. We were still working together as a team.
That's really my focus for 2021 — how do we keep momentum moving forward without having to be in fight or flight mode?
Me: What was the most valuable lesson you walked away with, as a leader, out of 2020?
Brie: How important it is to keep your team strong and, most of all, communicating. Again, during the peak of last year's uncertainty, we worked hard to keep all teams talking every single day. And Bob Ruffolo, our CEO, would hold completely transparent and raw Q-and-As publicly with the company.
What I'll note is that while our remote team-building activities were so important to keeping our company culture alive and (quite frankly) keeping our people sane to some degree, when there were no other social outlets available, the true camaraderie and trust we came away with last year did not come from virtual happy hours.
That came out of the fact that we all got through this together. We got through this as one team, and that's something I hope we never, ever lose.
Me: Have the events of last year in any way shaped or changed your leadership outlook or approach?
Brie: I know the way I make decisions — particularly around how I really help my people — has evolved greatly. I spend a lot of time asking myself if I'm really empowering someone to do something. Or, more to the point, I ask myself in many situations if the best thing I need to do is just get out of the way, rather than trying to "help" (as I used to think I was).
Now, one of the things I always ask myself is, "Do I need to be in this conversation, or should a different manager handle this without me and just keep me informed?"
Me: What are you going to be focusing on going through 2021?
Brie: Continuing to be very purposeful about how we use our "all hands" company-wide meeting time together is definitely one thing. We used to use that time to run through data and "talk at" our people about what was going on. Flash forward to today, we really use that time to inspire, to provide opportunities to learn from each other... and to celebrate wins with one another.
We want our all hands meetings to be a time where people reflect, find motivation, and come together. Where we find that camaraderie and true alignment, without being in fight or flight mode.
Me: What kind of things detract from being able to create that experience in an all-hands setting?
Brie: Quite frankly, I took out things that could have been said in an email. Also, these meetings are less about the same company leaders standing up, week after week, making the same updates. Instead, we've empowered different people each week across the company to share their lessons learned, their stories, their updates on key company initiatives, and more.
Our all hands meetings are now more of a shared experience, where we're all driving those core conversations together.
Me: OK, I want to abruptly shift gears here for a second, because there is one major thing you and I have yet to talk about. Last year was not only a big year for you because you became our COO or led us through the pandemic, you also were pregnant and became a mother.
Brie: From a planning standpoint, well... if you know me, this should come as no surprise, but I definitely planned. I knew what I needed to do before I had her, as far a new communication rhythm, stand up, the job scorecards, all that I did before I went out on leave.
And then I set up the company with the consultant on the customer experience purposefully while I was on leave so that stuff still happened while I was gone. So, in that case, it helped me figure out when to pull certain levers in the company. It's definitely helped accelerate my viewpoint on pushing people to grow without being overly pushy, like my analogy with the standing up thing.
Also, while everybody else in the company is dealing with personal challenges, obviously, I was too — and the baby shower that everybody threw me, it was one of the most touching things that had ever happen to me.
Me: How so?
Brie: Well, I was an excited, expectant mother, and I had to cancel everything. I had to cancel my maternity photos, my baby shower, everything, and it was really sad. Then, one Friday afternoon, Natalie Slacked me to say, "I need you right now."
And I was like, "Oh, crap." I mean, when I get that kind of Slack randomly from our VP of Talent... well, I worry, haha.
Then there everyone was on Zoom to celebrate with me with a virtual baby shower. We weren't just one team working together to achieve work-related goals. It meant so much that people I worked with planned it and sent a cake to my house and even got my husband in on it! It was just so much effort.
You know, it's easy to say, "Our best asset is our people," or "Yeah, we're like a family." But that's one of those moments that showed me... yeah, we really are a family. I'm forever grateful for that.
Me: What is one piece of advice you have for leaders who may be looking ahead to this year, even though we're already experiencing trepidation or caution?
Brie: I would invite anybody to look at areas either in their industry or within their company, that they can be "on the offense" about. And if you're still around today, you survived, and that's great. But ask yourself, what can you do going forward to get on top and take advantage of all the accelerations that happened around you?
Me: What advice do you have for aspiring leaders?
Brie: I have this advice no matter what time of year it is or what's going on. I feel like no matter what role you're in, you should always be educating yourself for your next five positions that you want. Because you never know when stuff's going to open up or you're going to have to flex different muscles.
You never know when a pandemic what's going to happen again and you pull out some stuff from your old notes that you tucked away. Because you took the time to educate yourself to be ready.
Wondering where to begin?