Leadership in a Pandemic: How to Successfully Lead Teams Through the Unknown

No matter how good you are as a leader, no matter how much experience you have under your belt, the reality is that right now, today, you are making your way through uncharted territory. The spread of COVID-19 has forced individuals, businesses, non-profits, schools, and government agencies to up-end the way they conduct their day-to-day routines. If you’re feeling like you’ve fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole and you’re in a topsy-turvy world that makes no sense because the only constant seems to be daily change, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in a pretty crowded rabbit hole with the rest of us.

Hopefully, the knowledge that you’re not alone in this new reality brings you some comfort. Here’s something else that might help tame your turmoil: You actually do have the tools to sort all this overwhelm and unknown out.

There’s a Map for the Unmapped Territory…sort of

Perhaps I need to clarify before we wander too deep into this. Veteran leaders who saw their teams through 9/11, Y2K, or a variety of different financial crisis milestones don’t have a roadmap for “How do we move the entirety of everything online and manage life from our living rooms for an unspecified amount of time?” What these veteran leaders do know, however, is that they can survive in the wilderness of ‘uncharted business territory.’ They can forge a plan and lead their teams through this to the other side.

Communication is Everything

There is nothing more unsettling than feeling like you have no idea what’s happening. Wondering why your state Governor, the President, and other politicians are spending time in daily press briefings? They are keeping those lines of communication open. They don’t have all the answers (and they haven’t claimed they do), but they are sharing the answers they do have. Take a page from this example. You don’t need to hold daily conferences with your team, but you should keep up a steady stream of open communication. As things change, let them know. Check in and see how they’re doing, especially if they’re working at home and not used to it. Keep the dialogue going. Be honest and direct in your communications.

People First

Yes, as a leader and/or business owner, you certainly have an eye on the bottom line. Managing a successful business is your job, after all. In times of crisis like this pandemic, you may need to be ready to make business decisions that aren’t the best for your profit/loss margin but are best for your people. You may need to close your doors and take it all online. You may need to let clients know that deadlines have to be extended as your staff figures out the best way to deliver on tasks from remote environments that may not be as well equipped as their usual spaces. You may make choices about giving away products and services to certain contingencies or offer steep discounts.

Be Human – A Hopeful Human

As a leader you default to projecting confidence and competence. You make decisive (informed) decisions. You are the one people go to when they need answers. You’ve got this all down. Except right now, maybe you don’t. And that’s okay. It’s okay to tell your team you’re figuring this out along with them, that you’re nervous about your elderly mother, and you’re just as frustrated that your supermarket is out of chicken, canned goods, and toilet paper. Yet, you also don’t want to contribute to panic and unease. You also want to share hope with your team. You know the short term is going to be tough; but you also know that long term your team will come through this and thrive on the other side of it. You know with confidence that a year from now, you’ll all be stronger for the struggle.

This is Not a PR moment

If your motivation of giving away a free month of services to non-profits, small businesses, and individuals in need is to help other organizations and people weather this stormy time, you’re on the right track. If you’re in it for the public relations value and for “good optics,” maybe rethink your motivation and your plans. Your team and your clients can see through you. I promise. Be a good corporate citizen because that’s the right thing to do. Leave the press release out of it.

Embrace Technology

As noted above, communication is key. Now is the time to roll up your sleeves and get comfy with technology tools that make working at home easy. If you haven’t already moved your team onto platforms like Slack or Zoom, do it now. Your team needs connection and they need more than an occasional email from you or a text. They need to feel like they can virtually pop into your office and ask you what they need to ask. They need your feedback. Set-up spaces on these platforms for your teams to have the sort of “water cooler” chats they’d be having in the office too. Social distancing doesn’t have to eliminate our relational connections. We just need to find a new way to connect.

Make Plans for Re-Engagement

Right now, we’re all forced to used terms like “indefinite” when we talk about how long these changes will be in place. We use that term because we want to be honest. We don’t really know when we will return to “normal”; however, we must be cognizant of the fact that terms like this can feel more permanent than it really is. Indefinite to a nervous staff and client-base can sound a lot like “forever” and “from now on.” While you can’t attach an end date to this temporary normal, you can make plans for what is going to happen when its end does come. Don’t make promises, but do make plans. Plan a team-building gathering. Talk about a day of service in the community or an employee picnic or a brainstorming meeting to figure out which elements of this current work environment are worth holding on to now that you’ve mastered it. Give you team…and yourself…something to look forward to.