The world has changed, and it might not go back to what it was before. In the meantime, those of us involved in organizational and leadership development may find ourselves wondering how to intersect, in a meaningful way, with the emergency preparations going on in the businesses of the clients with whom we work. After all, training and development, culture change initiatives and succession planning understandably take a back seat as the business tries to figure out how it will maintain basic operations. My clients are putting a number of initiatives on hold until the situation resolves itself. I understand this. And yet, I find myself wanting to offer solutions to some of the leadership hurdles I anticipate that they will have to overcome.
My primary message to the leaders I work with is this. The way you lead through this crisis matters. The people who work for you will have all sorts of personal challenges that they will face in the coming weeks and months. Many of them have families, they all have loved ones, some have children who need to be taken care of, and some have at-risk family members who they will be concerned about. Still others will have financial struggles as household members potentially lose jobs. The upshot of this is that they will be stressed, distracted and possibly not able to provide you with the output you may have come to expect from them.
You have a choice in how you react to this. The fact is, someday this situation will resolve itself. And if you think a little longer-term, this is your opportunity to demonstrate to your people that you, and your organization, actually deserve the trust and engagement that you want from them. My best advice is to do everything you can to be highly cognizant of your emotional intelligence skills and engage with your people. Connect with your people more than usual, ask them what support they need and ask them how you can help. Be focused more on praise and less on punishment. Allow people some room to process and wrestle with the challenges they are facing. Have an increased sense of forbearance toward your people as they manage their lives, even as they manage their work.
This is not to say that you do not continue to drive necessary accountability, but be more patient. Your actions as a leader during this crisis will reverberate long past the ending of it. Lead in such a way that your people will look back on how you led them with pride during such a tumultuous time.
Another bit of advice I am giving to my leaders is that this crisis may require some people to act out of role. Some people will need to step into leadership roles, or possibly lead efforts that they were not heretofore deemed ready to lead. This is an opportunity to test their mettle and see how they react. Your objective is not to find fault, but to coach and correct and to see what they are capable of. You may find a number of hidden gems in your organization you didn’t know existed. Be on the lookout for them.
A third perspective is that this crisis may well reveal gaps in how you develop people. I have a friend who served in the military and who once told me that they train so much because in battle a sergeant may have to assume the duties of a lieutenant, or a private may have to assume the duties of a sergeant. In emergencies, leadership needs to be able to break out all over the place. If people are not properly trained, then they will not be able to step up. If you find that your organization falters because people are having a hard time stepping up, it might be worth looking at how robust and effective your training and development culture is. This crisis can serve as a testing ground for that culture. And if it is found wanting, you now know what to do.
No one wishes for us to be dealing with the difficulties we are now facing, but here we are. If you are a leader, a moment has arrived that will allow you to be the kind of leader who people will want to work and sacrifice for — someone who truly cares about them at least as much as they care about their numbers. Be that leader.