7 Tips for Leading During the COVID-19 Crisis
COVID-19 has changed the game.
COVID-19 has changed the game. The way you led your organization pre-crisis will not cut it. Remote work, uncertainty, and fear have complicated every aspect of your business and will require you to embrace a different set of leadership characteristics if you want to survive.
As a crisis leader, you need to be more decisive and confident while presenting an air of certainty amid chaos. You need to be the calm in the storm. Here are seven ways you can adjust your leadership style to not merely survive, but thrive, during crisis.
1. Don’t Stand Still
During an ambush, soldiers caught in the kill zone are taught to immediately return fire, take up covered positions, and assault through the ambush.
This may seem counterintuitive. Why would one assault into the ambushing force? Because doing so enables you to disrupt the ambush and recapture the initiative. On the other hand, standing still would mean certain death, as would running away because the enemy could pick you off as you retreat.
While your organization isn’t taking fire, it is in the kill zone. Standing still will reduce your company’s chances of survival. Instead, like responding to an ambush, you need to confront the crisis head-on like Canlis, a renowned Seattle-based restaurant.
Canlis is one of Seattle’s finest, and most expensive restaurants. It’s been in business for decades and earned two James Beard awards in 2019.
Like many other restaurants, the COVID-19 virus has decimated Canlis’s business. Did the restaurant just stand still, though? No.
Within days, the restaurant completely reimagined itself to keep its employees, patrons, and business safe. Canlis shuttered its central dining room, stood up a bagel shop and burger drive-thru, and launched a home-cooked meal service. Now, that’s confronting reality head-on.
2. Enforce Excellence
Enforcing excellence within your organization — and yourself — is more important now than ever. Like a flow of water, humans are biased toward the path of least resistance. Left unobserved, people become more likely to take that extra-long lunch or binge the latest Netflix series.
To avoid this, you need to embed forcing functions into your routine. If you haven’t done so, establish a daily standup where each team member talks about their last 24 hours of progress, their next 24 hours of planned activities, and any challenges/blockers.
Create a daily or weekly top-of-mind post, outlining your priorities, recognizing wins, and resetting expectations. Establish clear channels of communication and stick to them. And then overcommunicate, overcommunicate, overcommunicate.
Keep in mind that your job is not to be popular, it’s to lead, and that requires establishing a culture of excellence and accepting nothing less. As my drill sergeant told me during boot camp, if you see something that is sub-par and you don’t correct it, you just set a new standard.
3. Be the Calm In the Storm
During even the best of times, your team looks to you as a gauge for how they should act and feel. This fact is compounded tenfold during times of uncertainty and crisis, so it’s critical that you appear calm and in control. If you can’t muster that naturally, then you need to learn to act in order to create a façade of certainty, positivity, and optimism.
Your acting will soon become a genuine conviction that will mobilize your organization. Remember this, if your team is confident you know where you’re going, they will follow you anywhere with zeal.
4. Capitalize on Uncertainty to Drive Change
When times are good, there’s less incentive to think outside the box, to push the boundaries, and to think differently about your business.
An existential threat changes that. To survive, you’re forced to do things differently, usually leading to discoveries that make your business stronger on the other side, as has been the case with the California Automotive Retailing Group.
The COVID-19 crisis came at a particularly awful time for the already declining car industry. Like dealers across the country, the California Automotive Retailing Group, which operates over a dozen car dealerships across the state, has seen a decline in customer traffic because of social distancing.
However, instead of making excuses, the auto group changed its business strategy to confront its new reality. The company’s leadership developed a process to sell and deliver cars remotely, with salespeople dropping off vehicles at customers’ homes, while also establishing a remote service capability.
This was no easy task. If you’ve ever purchased a car, you know there are several steps to the process, including test driving, negotiating a price, applying for financing (if you’re not paying cash),
and signing paperwork. Faced with an existential threat, the company reimagined the sales process to meet its changing environment. As a result, the group’s dealers are thriving.
5. Create a New Playbook for the Future
The COVID-19 crisis is likely to permanently change the way consumers behave, with more people favoring convenient remote experiences like those created by the California Automotive Retailing Group.
As a leader, you need to consider this future as you lay out your long-term strategy and goals. How will you not just survive during these trying times but set yourself and your organization up to thrive later?
Start by listing the assumptions you held before the pandemic and noting how those assumptions have been disproven. Then consider other assumptions you’re making now and how those may turn out to be invalid in the future.
Next, use a structured problem-solving framework to systematically identify the problems you’ll need to solve, generate novel solutions for solving them, and mitigate potential risks. Use this framework to get started.
6. Avoid Things You Can’t Control
You need to acknowledge the difficulties of your new reality, but you must not fixate on them. Recognize that there are things you can control, and those you cannot.
Focus on the former and avoid the latter. And remember, you have control over the most important things: your attitude, the way you confront problems, and how you choose to lead during the crisis.
7. Ruthlessly Prioritize
Before the crisis, you didn’t have the bandwidth to pursue every initiative you were interested in.
This is especially true in crisis. With constrained budgets and the potential of productivity being hampered with remote work, you need to become laser focused on what’s important and what’s not.
If you need help prioritizing work, take a page from former US president and WWII commander Dwight D. Eisenhower. An exceptional crisis leader who led the Allied D-Day invasion at Normandy, President Eisenhower used a simple matrix to prioritize his work, separating work by its urgency and importance.
Another effective prioritization tool is an ABC123 matrix, which helps you assess initiatives by their levels of impact and effort.
Your old leadership playbook is invalid because the conditions of the game have changed. Leading in crisis requires confidence, conviction, and adaptability beyond what is required during ‘normal’ times.
Your ability to adapt to this new reality will determine whether you merely survive or thrive. Amid the chaos, you must be the calm in the storm.