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Leading People Through a Crisis

on May 4, 2020
Blog Leadership Strategies

Recently, Root Inc. co-founder Jim Haudan met via video conference with Jim Boomgard, president and chief executive officer of DAI: International Development, and Joe Morgan, seasoned CEO, advisor and strategist, to get their insights on leadership during the Covid-19 crisis. 

“This is the first time the entire world has had one single enemy.” –Jim Haudan

Jim Haudan: What should senior leaders do to stay connected and help their people during challenging times? How can you get the information you need to guide your business decisions?

Jim Boomgard: My personal leadership style and behavior have been challenged during this time. A lot gets accomplished in our U.S. operation just by walking around, joining conversations, and having impromptu discussions. Even with our other office locations—Africa, Europe, and so on—normally I can get on a plane and be there for meetings. That’s off the table. As a result, the ways we are getting information is challenged.

In the face of this crisis, we’ve evolved by creating a nerve center to push information out and collect information from various places where we need that information. Since mid-February we have been encouraging our middle managers to be and do more than ever before. We need them to help the flow of information in both directions, as our teams in the field are increasingly more dispersed. We also have a task force dedicated to reading reports and following the media. They review all of the information, and this impacts our decisions.

Joe Morgan: What I’ve always done in a crisis is that I go back to the plan. I go back to the original framework or plan and go from there. I want to make sure the foundation is still intact and then try to verify what the new assumptions have to be around the business. You need to stick to your framework and then plan for the various potential scenarios.

As for collecting information, this can be challenging for small businesses that have smaller networks. Often, a small business CEO is viewed as knowing everything and having all the answers, but it’s virtually impossible to stay on top of everything happening. So what we’ve been doing is talking to our customers, suppliers, vendors, etc. as a collective group. Typically we will talk to folks individually, but it’s powerful when we build on each other’s thinking, and I’ve been doing a lot of that to try and get the right information to drive the business forward.

Jim Haudan: How do you stay connected to your people and to your leadership when fear and anxiety reign supreme?

Jim Boomgard: The old models aren’t working, so we need new ways. Based on meetings in the middle of February, we came up with messaging around the Four C’s: Communication, Cash, Cost, and Compassion.We then went to all of our senior leaders and as many supporting people we could, communicating that these were the things we would be focusing on. Then we evolved into a task force structure and leveraged the task forces to help communicate with different groups on different topics. We also have a series of scheduled meetings with our senior leadership team—they are our connectivity to the rest of the organization. Then we have staff memos from the task forces, from me, and we’re about to have our first all-staff Webex broadcast with 3,000 participants. Our size and our global presence don’t allow for daily morning meetings, but we’re trying to get into a cadence and a discipline. We have SharePoint sites, an internal portal, and we’ve given clear direction on who to talk to about what. We’re doing our best.

Joe Morgan: As I’m running a company right now remotely, I’m finding this crisis to present many interesting challenges. What’s helpful to me is to view things in phases. The first phase was about one-directional information, where we shared with people how we plan to operate. We focused on our foundation during this phase.

Then we knew we needed to focus on getting people engaged, so we moved to bi-directional communication. We said, no more phone calls—only video calls. It was amazing to see people you hadn’t seen in a week. It was difficult in some ways too, as you could see on some people’s faces how much the world had changed for them in just one week. This has been the hardest part for me.

I’ve led businesses through substantial challenges, but I’ve never done it without being in front of a person physically. The next phase is about action and change. I’m having to mandate and describe changes, but I can’t be in person. It can be hard to personalize what things mean without being in person, although video conferencing makes it easier. Next, we focus on rebounding. For the first time in my career, I can’t predict what will happen. This is very, very challenging. Also this isn’t a cookie cutter; this is a “what works for you” scenario. But through it all leaders need to remember to be consistent and to make sure your story is sticking with your people.

Jim Haudan: What actions or behaviors are most critical for leaders during today’s unprecedented crisis?

Joe Morgan: This is a telling moment to see if you are indeed the person you’ve said you were. I believe that leaders must be present. You need to get people to share their questions and concerns. But because I’m at home, I’m really out of my norm. So I’m spontaneously calling people. If I haven’t spoken with someone in a while, I’ll call them and ask, “What’s going on?” and then just listen.

Also, as leaders we have to make hard decisions. You have to do this with empathy, compassion, and pace. If you wallow, it gets harder for everyone.

Jim Boomgard: I believe it’s really important for leaders to be authentic—to not pretend like you know things that you don’t really know. Leaders also must be seen as putting in the effort required to collect the info to make good decisions. They need to keep hope alive, maintain a focus on the longer-term mission, and remind their people that they are all on the same mission.

At the same time, the most difficult thing I’m struggling with, is to make sure my top team has a strong sense of realism and don’t feel like they have to delude themselves that everything is going to be great and we’ll come out unscathed. Leaders need to promote realism without creating doom and gloom. You need to be balanced. It’s about reflecting the seriousness and importance of being a realist while also keeping hope alive. It’s artful.

Jim Haudan: A lot of research proves that growth occurs during adversity. What’s the gift in our current environment?

Joe Morgan: I love this question. I think some of the conventional framework of how innovation has to happen has been broken down due to need. What I’m seeing is there are collaborations taking place that never would have happened and are now suddenly becoming natural. That to me is an enormous gift. For example, I’ve been in the Young Presidents’ Organization for a long time. A global topic among us is PPE [personal protection equipment]. The vast majority of the members have nothing to do with PPE, and now we are all discussing this challenge. This crisis is going to catapult the supply chain. The supply chain for many things will change—from goods produced in our country, pharmaceuticals, etc. It’s really just about getting really smart people together to talk about innovation and breakthrough thinking.

Secondly, I think prior to this experience many people in my generation were fearful of technology, and now they’re not. We’ve just collapsed a generational tech gap that will now create enormous opportunity moving forward.

Jim Boomgard: I hope this global pandemic will renew the sense of importance of strategic planning and preparation for the long run around these types of threats. This threat is far greater than war. And the scale and magnitude of destruction being caused should have policy makers around the world collaborating on how to plan for this in the future.

Jim Haudan: Any last comments you’d like to share?

Joe Morgan: Don’t be fearful to adjust. There is new information coming in quickly, and while you’ve already put so much energy into a plan, it’s okay to change your view. Just explain the insight behind why you’re adjusting. Be courageous on adjustment—don’t hold back. Adjust and be transparent in explaining why.

Jim Boomgard: Like Joe just said, you have to adapt. You can’t be crazy convinced about anything because most of the initial hypothesis you’re forming will be incorrect. You have to realize it will take time for the smoke to clear and to get an accurate perception of what’s going on. In this particular crisis, it is very difficult to sort through the political dimensions, the media dimensions, the factual dimensions. It takes a while for the truth to emerge. Additionally, it’s always good practice to assume the crisis will last longer and be worse than you expect. Just keep this in mind and then if this isn’t the case, you end up happier with the reality.

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