We will re-emerge from this unfathomable moment in time, but not as we were before. Despite our instincts to endure this crisis and return to “normal,” history has shown us that tragic events—war, famine, disease—alter us in fundamental, irrevocable ways. Perspectives shift. New beliefs and mindsets take shape. Behaviors and customs evolve.
This is true of human beings, and it’s also true of businesses.
We’re entering the Great Reset, and it’s happening quickly. Many companies will tragically be lost to the economic fallout of the pandemic, and those that do survive will exist in a different form. Organizations will be far more adaptable and resilient. Distributed teams currently thriving with less oversight will crave that same autonomy going forward. Employees will expect executives to continue leading with transparency, authenticity, and humanity.
All business leaders realize that change is inevitable, but great leaders are being intentional about the change, harnessing the pressure and heat of this moment to forge new ways of working, new experiences, and new business models. And they are not waiting for quieter days when things will have settled down: That will be too late.
Based on our 25 years of experience in helping leaders through times of uncertainty, we want to offer up some recommendations for how to approach and respond to the changes that lie ahead. But first we must acknowledge this truth:
One size does not fit all
Much of the leadership advice circulating these days fails to acknowledge that different businesses are experiencing radically different realities right now.
Many companies are in all-out SURVIVAL MODE, fighting to stave off bankruptcy. Travel restrictions and quarantines are sidelining workers, upending supply chains, and disrupting entire industries, making layoffs, donations, and rescue packages a desperate last resort. Others are in ADAPTATION MODE, rapidly adjusting to this new reality. While cost containment and risk mitigation may be necessary first steps, these businesses are also shifting their operating models and customer experiences to ensure their continuity. And some companies are in OPPORTUNITY MODE, evolving to fill an unmet need that’s opening up. These companies are looking at the changing world and seeing new ways they can be of service, transforming their businesses to pursue these unexpected opportunities.
The flood of articles on virtual meetings is hardly of help if you run an international airline or a local bookstore in survival mode. The recommendations to cut back on innovation and refocus on your core won’t make sense if your business is in opportunity mode, with a chance to manufacture protective gear or ventilators, for example. In short, leaders won’t find any easy answers out there, and some of our recommendations will be more meaningful than others, depending on the mode you’re in.
Take what you can use, and leave the rest.
Leading on four levels
Most business executives have already developed a playbook for the urgent, tactical side of their crisis response: safeguarding workers, setting up a response team, modeling the economic impact, and more. What’s being overlooked is what you can do now to ensure the new normal becomes a better normal, by attending to your role on four levels:
1/ YOU: Readying yourself to lead through the crisis
2/ YOUR TEAMS: Supporting and guiding your coworkers
3/ YOUR BUSINESS: Reorienting your company and taking action
4/ YOUR COMMUNITY: Making a necessary impact in the world
Your focus won’t be equally divided among these four areas—at any one moment you may need to focus exclusively on one. But your ability to show up as your best self through this crisis will require that you ultimately attend to all four.
Leadership includes caring for others, and you can do this well only if you’re also caring for yourself. This may be a deeply frustrating thing to hear if you’re working 16-hour days while taking on the emotional strain of your family, friends, and teams. But like putting on your own oxygen mask on a plane before you attend to your fellow passengers, you can hardly care for others if you’re gasping for air yourself. Abraham Lincoln famously attended more than 100 theater performances during the height of the American Civil War to recharge and keep his anxiety at bay. Your energy is not infinite, and merely “powering through” and “keeping it together” won’t be enough for the intensity of the weeks and months that lie ahead.
What you can do now:
- ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR GRIEF AND ANXIETY. For some of us, the toll and trauma of the virus has come very close to home. But every one of us is experiencing loss right now: of connection, security, and normalcy. Experts in grief remind us how important it is to stop and accept what’s happening. The only alternative is suppression and denial, and it’s impossible to adequately deal with our present circumstances if you haven’t fully come to terms with them.
- RENEW YOURSELF. Since suffering a stroke, SYPartners’ founder Keith Yamashita has written and spoken extensively on the topic of renewal, and it’s particularly relevant right now. To summon enough strength to transform your company, you will have to drink from a deeper well—physically, spiritually, and intellectually. This may mean preserving regular time for workouts, as Adena Friedman of Nasdaq and so many others are doing. Or, like Marc Benioff of Salesforce, you might want to make meditation a priority. And for those who find more energy in intellectual pursuits, this may mean carving out small pockets of time to read, learn a new skill, or research a new topic.
2/ YOUR TEAMS
This is not just an economic and operational crisis—it is a human crisis, and leaders should act accordingly. No doubt you’re already doing everything possible to attend to your employees’ financial, medical, and logistical needs. Companies with the resources are beginning to implement new time off policies, hazard pay, remote working policies, and more. But as Maslow would remind us, emotional needs—for connection, confidence, respect—can become even more intense once someone’s basic physiology and physical safety are accounted for. As a leader you are probably a student of human behavior to begin with, and your emotional intelligence matters now more than ever. Look for ways to create more space for humanity inside your organization to strengthen your culture not only through this crisis, but after it.
What you can do now:
- MOBILIZE A BROADER BASE OF LEADERS. We’ve spoken to some CEOs who are hunkered down in a 24/7 “war room” with a small number of other leaders, and this may be a necessity—fast, centralized decision-making is important right now. But you likely have a broader coalition of leaders who want to help and need more than marching orders. Instead, they need you to distribute responsibility, enabling them to work in scrappier, more proactive ways while staying attuned to your core values. Share your expectations for how these front-line leaders care for their people. Gather them for rapid input on company-wide decisions where they may be holding more information than you are. And make sure they’re elevating the voices of their employees to inform your thinking.
- INTERACT WITH EMPATHY. Remember that each of your teammates may be experiencing radically different realities right now. For some, virtual meetings may be a welcome connection to the outside world, while others may be struggling through those same meetings, juggling personal responsibilities and worries. Approach meetings and check-ins with flexibility, using straight talk to cover the agenda items while creating optional opportunities for interpersonal connection. Design virtual gatherings for high humanity and high effectiveness. Stay optimistic but also realistic when communicating to others. And experiment with new rituals that make space for reflection and learning.
- FORTIFY YOUR CULTURE. Our old ways of working have vanished, but new ways of working have not yet been established. As people grapple with a radically changing world, they are actively trying on different mental models, discovering new beliefs, and testing new practices. But we’re all still very much in experimentation mode. That makes this the ideal time to define, embed, and accelerate the behaviors that will not only propel your organization through the crisis, but will also supercharge your culture after the crisis.
3/ YOUR BUSINESS
Your heightened perspective during this crisis is creating an opportunity to re-prioritize the things that truly matter. Throughout history, different cultures have urged us to contemplate death—not to darken our lives, but to lift us above the mundane and remind us what’s most important. Seneca’s letters, the early Christian concept of memento mori, and the Buddhist practice maraṇasati are three of many examples. Though we now find ourselves in deeply unsettling times, we’re also discovering that certain things we’d been obsessing over only weeks ago suddenly seem far less important, while others now seem of much greater significance. No doubt this has been true for your business, and through the lens of this crisis we’re reminded why our businesses really exist and what our true priorities should be.
What you can do now:
- DECLARE YOUR PERSPECTIVE. We’re not suggesting you need to publish a position paper on the crisis. But to create clarity internally at the very least, you should articulate your organization’s point of view in a way that both addresses the current reality and points to the future you want to create. What are you seeing from the unique vantage point of your business? What do you believe is important in the weeks and months ahead? And what do you intend to do about it? This may be a chance to reaffirm, or even reassess, your company’s purpose, values, and agenda.
- DECIDE WITH INTENTION. There’s no COVID-19 handbook for businesses, and traditional crisis management concepts don’t apply very well here since every individual, company, and nation is experiencing this disaster simultaneously. You have to make up the rules as you go, distribute responsibility, and act quickly—and this can lead to hasty decisions that seem right at the time but may ultimately compromise your values. To avoid this, create decision-making filters or checklists that help your teams make fast and decentralized decisions based on your purpose, values, and the strategic priorities you hold most dear.
- CREATE NEW VALUE. To state the obvious, your customers’ lives have changed, as have their needs. This is spurring companies to innovate with a renewed sense of urgency while stripping unnecessary layers of bureaucracy from the process. You may not have the resources to create life-saving medical equipment or protective gear, but get inspired by the companies who are making it easier to keep safe, stay connected, and work from home. Like these businesses and countless others, design new offerings and experiences that create immediate value for your customers while indicating the kind of value you can deliver beyond the crisis.
4/ YOUR COMMUNITY
This is a defining moment that will determine whether you’re purpose-driven, or just purpose-washing. We’ve been helping companies and institutions recenter around their purpose for more than 25 years, and it seems every business now has a corporate purpose or mission statement that explains why they exist not only to turn a profit, but to serve somebody—their customers, their clients, their communities. Recently organizations like JUST Capital, B Lab, and the Business Roundtable have been accelerating the shift from shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism, urging companies to play a greater role in serving others. The businesses that embrace this idea during the pandemic, using their purpose as a compass to navigate this crisis, can proudly claim they do in fact have a meaningful reason to exist.
What you can do now:
- CARE FOR THE COMMUNITY. We’re surrounded by examples of companies rising to meet the extraordinary challenges of this crisis. Some are making financial contributions to help, and that’s important. But we’re more inspired by the companies who are using their unique strengths to create immediate impact. Nike is using its marketing prowess to convince people to stay home. AirBnb is leveraging its enormous real estate inventory to provide housing for medical workers. Lyft is putting its fleet of drivers to work by providing free transportation for those in need. And it’s not just big companies: local bakeries, textile manufacturers, pet groomers, and countless others are finding creative ways to help. If you’ve not already found a way to make an impact, there’s still time. Ask yourself, “What do our communities need that only we can provide?”
- JOIN FORCES. This is not the time to focus on edging-out your competition. It’s a time to band together to create the type of impact that no one company could have on its own. When ultra-competitive UK newspapers ran a unified front page ad, it sent a powerful message to Britons that these times require extraordinary measures. Or when Microsoft, Amazon, EPIC, Mayo Clinic and others created a coalition to provide real-time COVID-19 data, they put aside their differences to keep patients and medical workers informed. Seek and spark new partnerships that will amplify your impact today and open up new frontiers for meaningful collaboration later.
Again, you won’t be able to follow all this advice all at once. Are you caring for yourself? Are your teams being adequately attended to? Does your business have a clear agenda for the crisis and beyond? Are you doing all you can to serve your community? The answers will tell you where to focus.
In the coming weeks, SYPartners will share tools and insights you can use to take steps forward and lead systemically in each of these four dimensions. We want to celebrate and share what you’re doing, and help all of us learn from how it’s working. We welcome your thoughts and ideas.