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Leading in turbulent times webinar series: COVID-19's silver lining

How to make the most of hidden opportunities

By Professor Robert HooijbergRobert Hooijberg and IMD Affiliate Senior Executive Coach Brenda Steinberg

This webinar with Robert Hooijberg, Professor of Organizational Behavior, IMD, and Brenda Steinberg, Executive Coach, IMD, appeared live at Friday 20 March, 2pm CET.

As a leader facing the coronavirus challenge, you need to learn a novel art of leadership and waste no time about doing so.

During a crisis, the norm is to have an all-hands-on-deck response. During these coronavirus times, however, leaders confront a paradoxical question: how to get people to act together while keeping them apart.

Coronavirus’ challenges are so big that they are bordering the existential: disrupted supply chains, plummeting demand and frightened employees. Challenges of this magnitude require a rapid, comprehensive response and this needs people to come together, and yet to do so in isolation – from their leaders and each other.

Leading in such a context required leaders to have their eyes on three different balls: keeping the business going, taking care of its people and doing both completely virtually.  It helps to think about a two-stage process: firstly bring stability, and secondly turn the crisis into an opportunity.

Bearing this in mind, here are key tips to master this new skill:

  1. Be clear, transparent and regular in your communications. If you are working virtually, people need to hear from you more and in times of crisis, people look to their leaders for guidance more than usual. Let them know the types of information you will share, the timing, the communication methods and the frequency. If you don’t know yet, say that, but also tell them when you will know or how you will come to a decision. No information leads to instability – people will try to guess what is happening.
  2. Make sure you are not spending all of your meeting time with others at the top. It not only signals that things are really bad; it sends the message there is an inner crowd and an outer crowd, and it’s inevitably demotivating to be in the latter. So spread your attention across and throughout the organization, and let everyone know you are thinking about them and that you care. Furthermore, ensure that all leaders reporting to you also think about how to support and communicate with their teams.
  3. Develop more structured routines for your team and your organization than usual. Structure provides a sense of security, which is critical during crises. Figure out fast which of your ways of working still make sense, and which ones need to be adjusted to increase a sense of control and continuity.
  4. Recognize and directly address the fear and isolation factors. Your people are going through major upheaval. They may be scared of catching the virus, they may have parents or relatives at risk, they may have young children who are not in school, and they may be separated from family members. They also might not be used to working from home so therefore must create new space, develop new rhythms, use new software and communicate differently. Don’t assume that everyone is ok because you have not heard otherwise. Leaders often overestimate that their direct reports will tell them if something is wrong. Check in regularly -- the more diverse and dispersed your team is, the more this should be the case.
  5. Ask for help more so than usual, because you cannot find the best solutions on your own and in a crisis, your direct reports will want to help. State clearly what you need though. For example, if you have a challenge and need ideas, tell your team in so clear a way as: “I need your input identifying and evaluating options so I can make the best decision”. The decision-making process should always be clear. Also, tell them who decides. Is it them, you, or the leadership team? Clarity around decision-making gives stability.

Turning crisis into opportunity

Once you have provided stability and addressed immediate priorities, start getting people to focus on the new future. COVID-19 has the potential to disrupt the products and services you offer and how the work itself is done.  This is an opportunity to focus on the new possibilities such disruption actually creates for the business. Here are some examples: Are there new products or services, target audiences or delivery mechanisms out there? Is this an opportunity to clean house in terms of discarding less profitable products and services from the portfolio? What new business models are now more attractive? Are there advantages of working in this virtual manner? Having employees propose improvements and new ideas and set new goals will bring energy and momentum to your business. It will also set you up to come out of the crisis stronger.

Contrary perhaps to instinct, development and learning should not be put on hold. The crisis is a unique opportunity to set concrete short-term learning goals. Ask your people what they most want to learn through this experience. What skills or content area do they want to learn or upgrade? What opportunities are available? Everyone should be planning for life after the pandemic. Taking the time to have meaningful development talks builds trust and loyalty; it is an act of caring.

Finally, it is critical for you to model this behavior and to encourage your team leads to do the same. If the part of the organization you lead is going to maintain intact, this type of visible, compassionate, forward thinking leadership needs to cascade through the organization.

In summary, first help people adjust to the new normal and then focus attention on bringing energy to new projects, and team and individual development so that your company emerges from this crisis in the strongest position possible. 

 

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