Listen Closely, Act Quickly: How Great Women Leaders Support Their Team During Crisis

Powerful insights and takeaways from women founders.


Tealfeed Guest Blog

3 years ago | 11 min read

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been hailed as possibly “the most effective leader on the planet.” Ardern imposed travel restrictions weeks before the country’s first confirmed coronavirus case. New Zealand closed schools and cancelled gathering when they had only 102 official cases. And as of mid-April, the entire country had only 9 confirmed deaths due to COVID-19.

Ardern isn’t the only leader who was quick to action, who imposed the necessary, strict measures to combat the spread of the virus. But her measures have been unusually effective.

So the question is: Why has Ardern been so effective?

Ardern doesn’t just implement great policy. She leads with empathy. Ardern’s words and actions feel human, relatable, and filled with compassion. She even hosts informal Facebook Live chats with her constituents, answering questions with humility and candor. Ardern’s authenticity, her genuine sympathy inspire trust and loyalty. They compel people to heed her warnings.

This piece introduces seven women leaders, female founders who lead their teams with compassion and strength. Like Ardern, these women all know how to listen with compassion and how to act with strength.

Part 1: Listen Closely

Justine Reichman of NextGenChef connects burgeoning entrepreneurs in the food industry with seasoned advisors. Before the pandemic hit, NextGenChef’s revenue was completely based on in-person events.

Now, Justine and her team have translated their love for the food industry into an entirely virtual business model. They are fighting to keep members of the food world united during this time of physical distancing. But even in this moment of uncertainty and change, Justine remains empathetic to the individual, unique needs of her team.

Justine says, “I think that one of the important things to realize is that we need to encourage people to freely express their thoughts, opinions, sentiments and feelings…Everyone has a different family life, different experiences. The one common experience is the pandemic. But it’s all hitting us in different ways. We need to respect and meet people where they are. Give them the space and community to take care of their needs.”

Justine is right. Every organization, every individual has different needs right now. Those needs can even change day-to-day, moment-to-moment.

CEO of Wana Family Network, Erin Beck, says, “Everyone’s journey is extremely personal. That became very clear, very quickly. Each individual’s struggles are extremely unique. Some of it is discomfort with isolation. Some of it is having high energy kids who you can’t distract with an iPad. Or it’s fear for the safety of your family. Each one is different, but the result is this continuous overlay of stress and this continuous stretch of bandwidth.”

Just like their teams, many leaders are overwhelmed right now. They are fighting to keep their business afloat. Just like their employees, their life has been completely upended. They probably feel like they are juggling a million balls all at once.

While juggling those balls, leaders might even notice that their employees need more help, more support. But leaders also might not have bandwidth to provide that help and support.

I’m here to tell those leaders — delegate and enlist backup.

The team at Wana Family Network, for example, has an embedded team counselor named Rob. Rob is an Executive Coach by training, and since the start of the pandemic, his sole role has become to call people and just talk to them about their day. How are they feeling? How are things changing and developing?

Erin says, “I could list off for years all of the amazing benefits of having Rob, especially for the CEO. Team members are able to talk to him confidentially, and then he passes those needs up the food chain to me so that team members’ needs can actually be met. And Rob doesn’t just communicate up. He teaches people to talk to me and each other directly.”

I think that what has been most important for all of us at this time is being honest with each other about what we need…

In a world with of stress and unpredictability, Anika’s CEO Rebecca Jacobs stresses the necessity of team members openly sharing their needs, asking for help. We can only respect and fulfill others’ needs if we know what those needs are.

Rebecca says, “I think that what has been most important for all of us at this time is being honest with each other about what we need…We have to allow people to be, to take care of themselves without judgment.”

“We’ve had to become a lot more vulnerable as humans. We’ve all had our individual challenges. Some have been related to family. Some have been related to work spaces,” says Rebecca. “I moved and relocated to be closer to family because of the pandemic, and I literally have to take most of my calls from my bathroom…We can’t hide any of that.”

Rebecca isn’t hiding that she has to take calls from her bathroom. She’s sharing it, and through her vulnerability and transparency, she is modeling to her team that it’s okay to get real right now. It’s okay to not be okay. We are all stressed. We all have days where we have to lock ourselves in bathroom to make a call. We all have days when the existential crisis hits us like a ton of bricks.

We don’t have to pretend that everything is alright.

Takeaway #1: Listen to your employees. Everyone’s needs, issues, and struggles are different. If you are transparent about your own struggles, others will share more openly. And if you don’t have the bandwidth to actively listen, make sure that you hire someone who you trust to listen for you.

When leaders listen to their team, some common struggles may emerge. In fact, one of today’s most common workplace struggles is that of working parents. Schools around the world have closed their doors, babysitters are socially distant, and grandpa and grandma can’t come over to lend a helping a hand.

Parents’ workload has doubled. Let’s be honest. It’s probably quadrupled. They are now a parent, a teacher, a babysitter, a constant source of entertainment. And on top of that, they still have to get work done.

But if leaders are flexible, it is possible for employees to be both full-time parents and great, productive workers.

At HomeoLux, their team is full of parents. In fact, every member of the full-time staff is a parent, and COO Irina Tanenbaum has two kids under ten. When the pandemic hit, HomeoLux’s team sat down together and strategized how to balance parenthood and work.

“We are a New York based company and we’ve all been knocked off balance as this pandemic hits so close to us…Since the team is predominantly working moms, we had a planning session on Slack,” says Irina. “We talked about when we really were available and when we would rely on our partners to cover childcare.”

The team decided to adjust their schedules and work from noon until dinner. They strictly reserve mornings for parent time. And they handle any critical, unfinished work tasks after kiddos’ bedtime.

Irina built this flexible balance of work and life into HomeoLux from the start. Irina says, “Even before the pandemic, we had a four-day week. We’ve had an amazing culture since day one. Now the culture is even better because our kids are part of work. We are meeting each other’s kids over video, learning their names. Now when a coworker tells me that her kid hurt himself biking over the weekend, I can check in with him when he walks through the room and make sure that he is doing okay.”

Like the team at HomeoLux, the Wana Family Network team is chock-full of parents who are thankful for flexible work hours. But the Wana team also accidentally stumbled onto an extra tool to help ease parents’ load. Every member of the Wana team has a Facebook Portal, a stand-alone video chatting device, sitting on their desk.

CEO Erin Beck, originally purchased the Portals to keep staff members connected to each other during the crisis, but she quickly saw an even greater benefit. Team members’ kids love their parents’ Portals.

Even at the best of times, happy kids make for happy, productive parents.

Erin says, “When I get a phone call on my Portal, I don’t know if it is my developer or my developer’s 7 year old son. His son will call to talk with my 4 year old daughter. And they will chat away while I’m getting work done. One time, my four year old was in class when he called, so I read him stories while the developer got his own work done. Now the staff are getting them for grandparents and other relatives, and it’s a contagion of people staying connected.”

When considering the impact of kids on our employees’ lives, we need to be flexible. But this time also presents an opportunity. The lines between work and personal are blurring like never before. That loss of separation can be scary — what if my coworkers don’t accept or understand my personal life? — but it is also a chance to create authentic workplace connections that last long past the pandemic.

Sharing our authentic self can seem overwhelming, but I propose that this time of unparalleled access to each other’s lives presents women leaders — and really all women at work — with a heretofore unimaginable opportunity to be our full selves.

As Margot Schmorak, CEO of Hostfully, told me, “One really great thing that happens now is that there is no posturing. It’s not allowed. There is no putting up a fake version. The need to be authentic in leadership is even more important. Women have long had to wrestle about how to be authentic at work and still maintain their other roles, as a mother, a wife, a woman. This is a time when we can share all of those identities.”

Takeaway #2: Be flexible in how you blend work and life. Gift yourself the freedom to connect on a more authentic level with not just your employees but also their families. That deeper understanding of one another, that human connection will benefit you and your business for years to come.

Part 2: Act Quickly

I could go on forever about the importance of listening, the joys of parenthood, and the pros and cons of authenticity in the workplace, but unfortunately, this an article, not a novel, and I’m already over 1,500 words.

Empathetic listening helps give leaders insight into employees’ struggles and needs, but knowing what employees need is only the first step. The second step is acting on those needs. Knowledge is only power when you act on it.

Sara Davenport and Wendy Barr at BARRCODE Branding work with a team of freelance graphic designers. When the pandemic hit, Sara and Wendy reached out to their team and learned that the freelancers’ income streams had dried up overnight.

The grim financial realities of the pandemic can’t be ignored. The International Monetary Fund predicts that 2020 will herald the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1920s.

Like so many others, this wasn’t a group that wanted more flexible hours. They didn’t want a Facebook Portal. They needed work and money. Sara and Wendy put their heads together and came up with a win-win for the business and the designers. Most importantly, they started moving forward on that win-win solution quickly and decisively.

To drum up new business during the crisis, BARRCODE is hosting an April giveaway for small businesses. Winning businesses will get complimentary branding and design work from BARRCODE Branding. And the giveaway isn’t done through a lottery. Instead, companies go through an application process, and those applications are reviewed by BARRCODE’s committee of freelance designers.

Sara says, “We are using the giveaway and committee as a way for us to come together. Instead of social gatherings, we are coming together in more work-related ways. Our goal is to keep our team feeling productive, feeling engaged. And because our relationship with them is a professional one, we feel that challenging them professionally is a way to build a stronger bond than merely communicating with them socially in an after-hours model.”

BARRCODE Branding is tackling three issues at once. They are creating new business for the company. They are keeping their freelancers socially connected and engaged. And, perhaps most importantly, they are giving their freelancers exactly what they asked for, an opportunity to work and earn more money.

Takeaway #3: When you listen to employees, your goals are to: (1) connect with and support them; and (2) uncover their problems and struggles. When you discover big problems (e.g. employees can’t put food on the table), don’t search for the best solution. Pick a ‘good enough’ solution, and get it done ASAP.

Once a leader selects a solution, it’s imperative to share the plan of attack with employees clearly and quickly. One of the greatest stressors of a pandemic can be fear of the unknown. In fact, when it comes to mental health, uncertainty is even worse than getting bad news.

CEO Margot Schmorak of Hostfully — a startup that helps vacation rental owners and property managers connect and communicate with their guests — understands the power of transparency in reducing employees’ uncertainty.

Given the pandemic’s catastrophic impact on the travel industry, Hostfully is planning for a huge drop in revenue. Margot says, “Our board met March 25th, even before everyone decided this was going to be a huge problem. We put together a plan to prepare for a 50% drop in revenue.“

But in all of her cuts, Margot didn’t sacrifice her team, “We did really deep cuts into our budget, but we only only did voluntary pay cuts.”

Keeping her team has paid off. Margot reports that even in this climate, her team has pulled in big wins in the last few weeks. Margot explains that one of the keys to her team’s remarkable success in the face of adversity has been proactive communication.

“We wanted to be ahead of the curve so that we could communicate with employees and reduce their anxiety level…Honestly, we don’t know what the future holds. There is a tendency to be tight-lipped because you don’t want to disappoint people. But it’s a cop out to not predict at all,” says Margot. “What we did is plan for the worst and hope for something better. We communicated that to the employees really quickly, so they could get on board and reduce their anxiety.”

Margot was right to listen to her gut and communicate transparently…at least according to science. Even with all of our disparate needs and wants, we all have one need in common. We need to feel like we know what’s ahead, know whether we’ll have a job next week, know whether we need to prepare for the worst.

Takeaway #4: Reduce your team’s sense of uncertainty by communicating decisions (i.e. solutions) frequently and with radical candor. Whenever possible, tell employees the why, what, and how behind every big decision.

A great leader is a listener, a source of comfort. A great leader shows her team that it’s okay to not be okay; it’s okay to be vulnerable. She connects with her team on a genuine, authentic level. But a great leader also acts quickly. She looks for solutions, gives her team direction, and provides a sense of certainty even in the face of the unknown.

This article was originally published by Lindy gullett on medium.


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