The COVID-19 pandemic is taking a toll on the social, economic, and personal aspects of business and everyday life. Almost overnight, individuals and organizations had to make enormous adjustments to respond to the crisis.
In times like these, leaders play an essential role in managing and inspiring their employees, as well as ensuring that they continue to produce results within their companies. We reached out to the alumni of the University of Utah David Eccles School of Business Executive MBA (EMBA) program to get their take on managing and leading in times of uncertainty. These seasoned, senior-level leaders offered the following advice:
1. Meet (virtually) and more regularly than before
For many companies, the transition from on-site to remote work happened within a matter of days. While we live in a globally connected world where remote work has become increasingly common, this is still unfamiliar territory for some organizations. Whether your team is local or not, it is important to maintain frequent touchpoints. These check-ins should be seen not just as an opportunity to get an update on employee tasks and projects, but also a chance to get insights into how your team is coping and dealing with stressors.
“Our CEO hosts a daily video call at 3 p.m. for all 300 employees across five time zones. It’s a daily beacon that allows us to learn what’s happening across the business. He covers real content like an update on our sales and customers, the plan for financial solvency (including at which point they may need to restructure the business), and how the company is taking care of employees,” said Jessica Bledsoe (EMBA ‘14), Product Marketing Manager at Black Swan Data. “He’s candid but also empathetic. These calls have been our lifeline.”
Working remotely does not mean you have to feel cut off from your team, and there are still ways to inspire connection and collaboration between team members from a distance. Just as you are finding unique ways to connect with friends and family, try to find new ways to stay connected with your team.
“We have started running virtual happy hours, yoga sessions, and lunch and learns. It’s such a great way to connect with employees outside of work and relieve some stress,” said Jason Coulam (EMBA ’14), Partner of Avalaunch Media. “We will be talking about this time for years and even decades. We will remember how people led, for good or for bad. I think the biggest sign of a good leader will be the degree to which they connected with employees as people and helped them overcome their fears.”
2. Follow expert guidelines
Leaders have numerous roles beyond simply managing and leading, including their obligation to protect their employees. Social distancing guidelines have proven to be the best method for decreasing the spread of COVID-19, and employee cooperation is important not just for society but also for business continuity. If you are not able to fully transition your team to remote work, it is vital they practice social distancing and hygiene measures to ensure they and others do not get sick.
“Because we are a manufacturing plant, some of us still need to come to work and produce parts,” said Leo Leite (EMBA ’17), Product Manager for US Synthetic Corporation. “However, we have created standards to maximize social distancing. Employees should stay within their respective teams and minimize interactions outside of their work zone. Shifts do not overlap, and at the start of every shift employees are asked to disinfect surfaces and machines.”
These protective measures can include providing necessary items for your employees, including hand sanitizer, cleaning wipes, and even masks and gloves. Practicing and promoting proper health measures, such as asking employees to wash their hands more frequently, keeping social distance even when in the office, and routinely wiping down desks, doors, and personal items can make a significant difference.
3. Be optimistic but honest
It can seem easier to sugarcoat discussions during tough times and crises than it is to be upfront and address situations head-on, but that upfront approach is exactly what employees need from their leaders right now. There is a fine line that leaders must walk between remaining positive and giving a realistic outlook for the company. The more “real” a leader can be in communicating with their employees, the better decisions employees can make for the company and for themselves.
“During these times, leaders have the challenge of finding the balance between optimism and realism,” Coulam said. “Yes, employees want to hear their leaders’ positive outlook, but they also want the real picture. Leaders displaying excessive confidence during extraordinarily difficult times come across as fake and out-of-touch. Be positive, but be real.”
4. Reach out to your mentors
One leader never has all the answers, particularly during times of crisis. Utilize your network to help solve problems and address difficult situations. While we are facing different challenges, there is a good chance that other leaders can give you their perspective and advice on successful solutions they have implemented in their own organizations.
“It’s so important to talk to mentors and other experienced leaders right now, including classmates,” Coulam said. “Earlier today, one of my business mentors called to check in. I explained a current challenge with an employee and within five minutes he provided me with the perfect approach based on his previous experience. There’s power in talking with other leaders and getting their perspective on how to approach things.”
5. Care for others AND yourself
The saying that you can’t take care of others unless you take care of yourself remains true. As a leader, being vulnerable and taking care of yourself reassures your team that they can do the same. Unique times like these are going to present different challenges for everyone, and your team and company will be more successful if they are able to feel united. Caring can be seen in small ways, such as checking in with your team, or in bigger ways, such as allowing them to make adjustments to their schedule to accommodate child care.
“Be calm and care for yourself. Care for those you love, and care for each individual on your team in an individualized manner,” said Sabrina Cole (EMBA ’19), Executive Operations Director of System Pharmacy Services at Intermountain Healthcare. “When I care for myself, I’m much better equipped to care for those I lead in the unique and intentional way that is needed during this challenging and disorienting time.”
Making an effort to show empathy to your team goes beyond just the positive impact it can have on your company. It can also inspire employees to be more caring in their interactions with others.
“Caring is contagious and flows throughout my organization to the front line,” Cole said. “What is needed more than anything at this time is calmness and caring. Caring for those we serve, those we lead, and those who surround us in this important work together.”