Leadership in the time of COVID-19
The last few weeks, I have held my breath constantly. I’m not always aware that I’m doing it. I am in a near-permanent state of waiting for the other shoe to drop; what devastating public health news or market crash will be next? Which of my favorite restaurants is folding? How many assignments will arrive today from school, and how will I teach my kids and keep our house clean and supplied and still have time to wash my hands every 30 minutes?
My brain is underwater just from living, and that’s not even counting the parts of life that relate to my job. I’m saying things without thinking, things I would never normally say. I’m saying them both fast and in slow motion. I don’t know how to support people, or what I myself need by way of support. I have to make a lot of business decisions quickly and with terribly incomplete information, and I am running and walking 10 miles a day because it’s the only way to get my head clear (not to mention the only way to safely get out of my house).
Earlier this week, I described how I’m feeling to a couple of friends. In what they shared in return, I heard echoes of my own experience. Talking to them didn’t make everything go away, but it did make me feel less alone, and I even came away with a couple of strategies that helped me.
What if we’re not alone?
Inspired by the commonality I found, I put together a survey of business leaders about what they are experiencing right now and how they are leading. I construe “business leader” broadly; if you feel that you are one, you probably are. In all, just over 250 people filled out the survey over the last 72 hours, with about half the participants identifying as C-level executives in a variety of industries (but just over half in technology).
The answers that people provided might have been different last week, and they also might be different next; that’s how fast the landscape and people’s feelings about it are changing. But the experiences that people report share a lot of overlap. I am not alone, and you aren’t either.
Here’s what I heard.
Most of us don’t know how to communicate about all this.
I have made more personal communication blunders in the last two weeks than I have in the rest of my career combined. As the leader of a communication company, this especially stings. I’m both putting more care into what I communicate, and also getting it wrong more often than I ever have before. How can that be?
I was interested to see that so many other business leaders are having a similar experience.
The reality is that no existing business leader has lived through, let alone led through, a situation like we’re experiencing right now. Many people shared that they are feeling overmatched by the communication tasks in front of them.
“I don’t know how to motivate people when secretly every minute is a panic attack in my brain.”
“The other day, I found myself literally yelling on a Zoom call. I don’t think I’ve ever yelled at work in my career. I apologized immediately, but it was too late. Damage done.”
“I’m a think-before-I-speak kind of person. I care about getting it right. I can’t think straight right now, which means that I end up saying nothing, which is the worst thing I can do because people fill in their own story.”
I’m trying to start small meetings that I run with one- or two-word “state-of-mind check-ins,” where it’s safe for people (including me) to share our emotions or state of mind starting the conversation. It takes some of the pressure off people to get the words perfect. No one is perfect right now.
Teams are top of mind.
In light of the above, I was not surprised to see that 47% of business leaders said that supporting their current team is their top priority. This was the most common answer; the next closest priority (“understanding the impact on my revenue”) was the top priority for 30% of the group.
While supporting their current team is a top priority, just as with communication, most of us aren’t sure how to do it. New infrastructure to support remote work tops the list, with 80% of business leaders saying they have invested in new productivity tools, and 63% facilitating new ways for their teams to connect online.
New tools and infrastructure are great for getting work done under these weird new circumstances, but they just scratch the surface of what people are needing. Every day feels to me like a new kind of compromise; how can we afford to help with suboptimal work / life situations with no set timeline and no clear business forecast? Many other people shared similar sentiments.
“I’d love to provide my team better tele-health options, better child care support, you name it. I wish we could afford to do more for our local community. But if we spend too much on that, we’ll definitely go out of business.”
“I wish we had a richer health insurance plan so that employee dependents were covered too. It’s very stressful right now not being able to give people the coverage their families need.”
There is a clear tension between providing people what they need, and being able to afford it; taking on increased cost while revenue forecasts are uncertain is scary. Operating a business during a downturn when there is no Universal Basic Income and limited social safety net means that business leaders feel extra anguish over taking care of their teams. Even (especially) when they have no good options.
Given this, I was struck to see how many business leaders are turning to their teams for support too; people in this survey look to their work teams for support with the same frequency that they’re turning to their families. That’s a significant statement about the role that work has taken in many of our lives.
Of everything people shared in this survey, I was most surprised to see how few respondents are counting on therapy or coaching as a means of support. I count on both.
What about the business?
More than half of business leaders identified understanding revenue impact of COVID-19 as a top two priority. Just under 30% put evolving their core business in their top two priorities as well.
I ran this survey over a three day period. Each day, these core business challenges drew higher and higher prioritization from respondents, displacing some of the priorities around team and culture that showed up strongest on the first day. I’m not sure what tomorrow’s results would show, but the progression over the week has been striking.
Over the last week, at least three different CEOs and twice as many VCs have reached out to me with a confidential survey, asking me to share my revenue projections for the year ahead. Everyone is looking for benchmarks because everyone is guessing; few know how to forecast the impact on their own businesses because we’ve never operated in this environment before.
44% of business leaders in this survey have at least some anxiety that their organization may not survive the year. At the same time, even among the most anxious, there is a clear undercurrent of builder’s optimism.
“We are either going to be wiped out of existence or we will 10x our business. I don’t have enough data yet to say which way it’s going to go.”
“The best companies are made during downturns. In every downturn is some opportunity. Not for whoever figures it out first (although first helps), but for whoever has the will (and the cash) to make it happen.”
“If I use my resources right, which includes cutting way back on literally everything that isn’t business-imperative… well, honestly, I’m sort of energized by figuring this out.”
This kind of optimism is at the core of every act of entrepreneurship. I find it tremendously heartening.
Don’t get me wrong: Optimism alone won’t take us through the current public health crisis and market conditions. We need real government leadership, both in offering more broadly available social services and in pulling the right levers for market intervention. We also need to live with the cabin fever we’re all feeling and stay physically distant from one another for a while.
But business leaders have to show up too. If we can find reason for hope and an appetite for building even during the toughest times, then we have the chance to make the kind of real and lasting impact that goes beyond turning a profit.
What is happening right now is bigger than that. It is about people’s lives. It is about seeing the pain that people are experiencing right now, at work and in life, and making something that helps.
I started this conversation as a way to reconcile my own feelings, which are moving a mile a minute, with what I thought “normal” might be. In an upside-down time, secretly my hope is that someone else has the playbook and I just need to uncover it.
Every day, I’m discovering that there is no playbook. But the truth is that there never really was. The situation we’re in highlights what has always been true, which is that the best we have is learning by invention. And right now, we have the chance to invent things of real, durable meaning.
When we get through this, we will be unstoppable.