How to Lead During COVID-19: Two Fears and Three Questions

By Brian Giese, CEO of True Influence.

Today employees are focused on two fears:

1. Will I or someone I love get the virus?

2. Am I going to have a job tomorrow?

This is a global reality, not for just our team here at True Influence. Like it or not, we’re all in this together. As business leaders, it’s our job to manage fear and encourage employees so our work can go on. That’s the best thing you can do for the business during this crisis.

There’s no doubt that stressed employees are less productive. It’s human nature. If you fail to provide leadership from the top down in a crisis, that immediately impacts your organization’s stress level. You can’t stay healthy in a crisis with that level of internal stress. So what does a leader do in a pandemic to reduce employee — and customer — stress?

To win a fight, you must be in it. Beating COVID-19 means keeping your company and employees whole by removing obstacles, so teams can excel. Today, stress definitely creates an obstacle, so what am I doing about it?

I talk frequently with other business leaders, and most of them hope to get back to business as best they can. It’s their job to guide employees and customers along that path to security, but what CEO has ever effectively led a company during a pandemic like this? With no precedent, we’re all making it up as we go along.

Are you Ready, Willing, and Able?

The art of effective crisis leadership focuses on three interdependent questions that help foster sustained high — even heroic — performance by your teams:

Question 1: Am I ready?

This all came so fast just a few short weeks ago, and no leaders were fully prepared for this change. Now it seems many prefer to ignore the elephant in the room and let this pass them by. I see it differently.

If you aren’t prepared emotionally to change and lead, your ability to make the tough calls during any crisis will be compromised. So on March 27, we made the tough decision to pledge not to lay off employees. It may have been a tough call, but in our situation, it turned out to be the right one.

The crux of change is emotional, and some leaders just aren’t emotionally ready for this. “I don’t like change” or “That’s the way it’s always been, and we’re gonna keep doing it this way” or “This to will pass” are familiar phrases. Words like these eventually smother any company, even under normal conditions. Now suddenly a crisis comes, and nothing is the way it’s always been. What do you do now? Start with the question: Am I emotionally ready for a change?

Question 2 – Am I willing?

In a purely business sense, are you ready to absorb the consequences of a bold decision like committing to a 90-day no layoff pledge? Are you willing to sustain the shock of it not working out for your company? A lot of leaders aren’t. At the time we took the decision to make the 90-day pledge, we didn’t know what to expect. We just believed in making a commitment to our people, and I was willing to do so.

Sometimes the decision goes to the conundrum of having the money, but not wanting to spend it to preserve jobs. In fact, some companies have cut staff, because it’s easy now to shave the bottom 10% and blame it on the crisis. Sad, but true.

Question 3 – Am I able?

Leaders have two hoops to jump through before their opportunity to act falls apart. Am I willing, and then, am I able? Will the board let me? Can I sustain the business without doing a layoff? Do I have control to do it?

I’ve talked to a lot of CEOs in the last few weeks who tell me they personally want to do a no-layoff pledge, but their boards won’t let them. The pressure is on to manage strictly to the numbers. These CEOs know this is likely not the best path forward for employees, but their hands are tied. Boards either want to play it safe or (in the worst case) use the pandemic as cover for pre-emptive cuts. Obviously, this is not the way forward in a crisis, but it’s a real challenge facing many CEOs right now.

Clearly COVID-19 came out of nowhere to transform the way the world does business. We can take action to get out ahead of it now, or sit back, wait and see. Companies like DOMO and SalesForce haven’t held back. They’ve forged ahead with positive action around the crisis. No one has all the answers, especially today. Heck, we’re not even sure what the questions are anymore. I will tell you this though. When a CEO faces a crisis like this, these three questions will help you focus on what you can do and what you must do. Happy to connect with any of you to discuss.

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