A guide to leading people from any level during times of chaos
I’ve seen a lot of fantastic articles recently about how to lead your team during a time of chaos from a senior management perspective. However, I found myself thinking hard about the reverse — how can employees, precisely team leads and managers, best support their senior management team?
When I speak about effective change management and transformation, I often talk about the need to “lead at all levels” of the organization. Indeed, vision and direction are set at the top of an organization, but real change lives and breathes at the bottom. If we are to help our organization navigate the storm, we must find ways to lead from wherever we are.
To help answer this question, I messaged a group of trusted senior managers in my network and asked what they need from their teams right now. Here is a summary of the themes I heard:
“Right now, I need my team to”…
- Know that we’re here for you and that we have your best interest at heart
- Help to support effective decision making. Understand that decisions are being made quickly, and priorities may change
- Recognize when to lead and when to follow
- Be candid and help me understand the real questions
- Help to ensure information is communicated effectively, but keep to the facts and avoid the ‘telephone’ game
- Listen & encourage others to be part of the solution
Support & enable each other
- Foster a safe environment, encourage candour and practice empathy
- Champion change and demonstrate desired behaviours
- Share insights from our clients and suppliers
- Enable people with digital tools
- Innovate, co-create and collaborate
Take care of yourself
- Take stock
- Create space
- Lead by your core values, always
Let’s dig into each of these a bit more…
We’re here for you
Every one of the senior managers I talked to started off by sharing a similar message: “we’re here for you, and the only way to get through this is to work together.” At the core, people are the priority. No matter what level you are, you can demonstrate leadership by practicing this behaviour and mindset, coming together around a common goal, and creating an environment where people feel heard and connected. Check out the Lead by your core values section at the bottom to dig into this even further.
Support effective decision making
For most of us, the world looked very different a few weeks ago. Companies spent this past week establishing policies to protect their people, transitioning to a remote working environment, and ensuring business continuity. Now companies are looking more deeply at operations and new strategies as they absorb changing information daily. Decisions are being made quickly, and people are looking to their senior managers for direction.
Resilient leaders are known for their decisiveness. In a perfect world, that decisiveness is aligned closely with a strong strategy and backed up by clear and consistent messaging, guidelines, and actions. But we are not in a perfect world; we are navigating unknowns and absorbing new impacts daily. Also, many of us work in collaborative cultures that involve many people in the decision-making process. The truth is, this is not always the most effective way to make decisions, especially when things are moving so quickly.
These changes, mixed with working remotely and not being able to “swing by” your boss’ desk, may leave you feeling out of the loop, anxious and frustrated, especially when decisions are made without your involvement. These feelings are understandable, but there are simple things you can do to help ease your anxiety and support your senior managers, including:
- Ask your senior managers how you can best support decisions with information or actions
- Trust in their ability to make decisions. Recognize that they may change and that they do not have all the answers
- Recognize that priorities are shifting; things that were important may no longer be
- Ask your leaders for decision-making guidelines so you feel empowered to operate confidently
- Help your staff and team understand where your senior management team is coming from. Be honest and candid
- Help to educate your senior managers when they are “missing the mark” (see below)
Remember, your senior managers are human. I had several individuals answer my question with “I am human…please tell me when I’m missing something.” We need to help our senior managers understand the full picture, without overloading them with details. Sometimes that means letting them know when they’re messaging is not clear or confusing. Other times that means raising unknown risks or critical information from the front lines.
“Priorities are shifting daily. What might have been an idea worth pursuing last month may need to shift to the back burner.” Director, NFP Sector
Know when to lead and when to follow
An essential part of effective leadership is knowing when to lead and when to follow. Although it’s not always black and white, it’s important to highlight where ‘following’ is the appropriate behaviour. Context matters; however, below are a few examples of ways you can effectively ‘follow’ during a time of chaos:
- Execute executive decisions and adhere to organizational guidelines
- Ensure operational processes are being followed, including new procedures designed to protect employees and stakeholders
- Focus on aligning your work with current business strategies, and be ready to shift focus based on changing priorities
- Mimic desired behaviours and core values
Help leaders understand the real questions (aka the water cooler talk)
It’s no secret that informal communications channels, such as ‘water cooler talk,’ multiply during a state of transformation and uncertainty. Virtual or not, side conversations filled with concerns, questions, and speculations exist in your organization today. The issue is, not all of these items get filtered up to the senior management level. It’s essential to raise real concerns to keep communications open and relevant. At the same time, ensure that questions are clear and deliberate. If your organization does not have an effective two-way communication strategy (in a manner that protects people’s privacy), then I would recommend raising it to your HR or senior manager, or volunteer to set one up yourself.
“Tell me where and with what you are struggling with. Be clear and direct with the support you need.” Director, NFP Sector
Help to communicate information, but keep to the facts and avoid the ‘telephone’ game
It’s vital to ensure that communication is flowing throughout the organization. My one word of advice is to ensure you do your best to avoid the “telephone game”. Context, tone, and details can all alter a person’s interpretation, so keep to the facts and try to clarify where you, too, are confused. Additionally, make sure to separate your personal opinion or interpretation from the facts. Remember, the best communication during a time of chaos is relevant, clear, consistent, and actionable.
Listen & encourage others to be part of the solution
Trade secret — many effective leaders learn by listening. During a time of chaos, there is an incredible opportunity to practice and increase your active listening skills. Take an extra few minutes to check in with your colleagues and listen to their struggles. Instead of providing solutions right away, try asking one or two questions before giving advice. This will ensure that the other person has a chance to express what they are feeling, and in some cases, come to their own conclusions. It will also help you better understand whether or not they want advice (this is not always the case), or whether they are simply looking to get something off their chest.
Take active listening one step further. Instead of saying, “Thank you, I will raise it.” Try, “Thank you, great point. Before I raise this, what are one or two practical things we could implement quickly to help alleviate this situation?” You’re doing two things here: first, you’re helping others get to value quicker and empowering them to help be part of the solution. Secondly, when you do raise it, you can provide senior managers with some suggestions, helping them get to decisions faster.
Support and enable each other
Foster a safe environment, encourage candour and practice empathy
Whenever our world seems threatened, it’s natural for us to retreat to the basic level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — searching first for physiological and safety needs. Organizations focused heavily last week on ensuring people were physically safe, but psychological safety is an ongoing need, and will only become more critical. Demonstrate empathy and work every day to create and foster an environment of candour, trust, and psychological safety.
“Right now, I need my team to tell me often and tell me candidly how you are feeling…As a leader, it’s more important for me to know how people are feeling and that my team can tell me honestly what’s on their minds, versus achieving certain things on a particular work project. Deadlines can always shift, but people’s mental (and physical) health is more important in this environment, and maybe more urgent depending on the situation.” C-level Executive, Private Sector
Champion change & demonstrate positive behaviours
Take the opportunity to lead change by demonstrating positive behaviours within your organization. Not only is this an opportunity to support your organization, but it also drastically increases essential leadership skills, specifically as it relates to managing people through the emotional journey of change. Championing a change in your organization can be as simple or as complex as you want, for instance:
- Take an active role leading a project to reduce workload off of others with limited capacity
- Create a group of change champions to help people work more effectively from home
- Start any of the digital projects I’ve listed in the section below!
Share insights from clients and suppliers
Dealing with a crisis requires a 360 view of your entire business, from your suppliers to your customers. If you are at either end of the supply chain (supplier or client facing), you’re in a unique position to have a good understanding of how your customers and suppliers are feeling. Knowing that things are also changing daily for them makes you an information lifeline to your senior management team. If you’re in this position, discuss ways your team can get concise and timely information to your senior managers effectively.
Enable people with digital tools
Let’s face it, for some of us, quickly learning and adopting digital tools can be frustrating, even more so for senior managers who have limited time. If you’re comfortable and naturally curious about digital tools, step up and help out. How?
- Offer to help people who are struggling to get new applications to work
- Suggest new productivity tools to your manager or IT team
- Run a virtual lunch & learn or share a how-to guide on using tools effectively
Innovate, co-create & collaborate
With all this talk about decisive actions and maintaining alignment, perhaps it seems like there is no space for innovation, co-creation, or collaboration. But it’s actually in times of chaos that we have seen some of the most incredible innovations emerge. Here are examples of ways I saw people innovate, co-create or collaborate last week:
- Launch alternate business models
- Virtually ideate solutions to new problems
- Leverage their network to gather information quickly
- Integrate new tools to address new gaps or issues
In addition, check out my Productivity Guide about how to stay productive at home.
Take care of yourself
I’m reminded time and time again that you “can’t give what you don’t have.” Sure, you can fake it for a while, but it will start to catch up and impact your ability to lead at work. Be very honest with yourself and check-in with how you’re feeling. Are you getting fresh air daily? Exercising? Eating well? Laughing? Some of you may be struggling not to trip over everyone at home, while others are wishing there were more people around to trip over. Take stock and be honest with yourself about your current needs.
Create space for yourself
It may feel like we have more time to ourselves at the moment because we are stuck at home; but, increasing time to ourselves does not automatically result in more emotional or mental space, especially if you are managing work from home with children. Find time each day to create some mental space. For me, that means turning off notifications, getting some fresh air (when suitable), and doing something creative (I’ve seen a lot of people dig into their inner home cook this week!).
Lead by your core values, always
Believe it or not, not everything is changing. When the world is moving fast it’s our core values that stay constant and ground us. Our core values are deeply rooted in our organization’s fabric, and help us tell the world the story of who we are. They are the foundational pillars of our culture and drive our organization’s core beliefs. Lead by your core values, always.
Examples of core values:
- Care for our people
- Be genuine
- Be a trusted advisor to our clients
- Act with integrity
I will close off with a quote from a dear friend of mine, who is an executive leader in the healthcare industry.
“…my morning affirmation [is] ‘Do the best I can. Make the best decisions I can make. Maintain confidence with honest humility.’
What I need my team to do…remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint. We are all scared. That’s ok. Be there for each other. We will get through this together.” VP, Healthcare Industry
Important Note — I want to recognize that concerns in your organization will vary greatly depending on your situation. Some of you may be trying to figure out how to work from home and maintain business continuity, while others may be wondering about whether their team’s positions will be secure in the foreseeable future. This article cannot address all of these concerns. Regardless, I hope you glean some valuable insight to help you lead courageously in whatever you do.