Coming back from COVID: the aftermath of leadership in a pandemic

This is a guest post by Jeff Tetz, CEO & Partner at Results Canada. Today, as part of the ownership group, he helps oversee a team of consultants who help mid-sized companies transform from good to great. Passionate about inspiring people to build great companies, Jeff has almost 20 years of experience in leadership roles that include roles with the Edmonton Oilers and Eskimos.

Have you ever been jolted awake in your hotel room by a fire alarm in the middle of the night that leaves you in a stunned mental haze? The kind of haze where you can’t tell if you’re dreaming or awake? You can hear people moving hurriedly through the hall and instinctively you know something’s wrong, but your brain hasn’t caught up to the rest of your senses, so you don’t really know what’s going on. Then, suddenly, like a submarine breaking the surface from the depths of the sea, it hits you- it’s a fire alarm, you must vacate your room, fast.

This is what COVID-19 felt like for me. It was like I went to bed and everything was normal but when I awoke the next morning, the whole world had changed. Offices closed, physical contact was banned, economies cratered, and the trend-line of our company revenue resembled the trajectory of a bungee jumper.

The first week was a deeply emotional experience for me. I frequently paused mid-sentence to choke back tears on calls with clients exchanging stories of sobering business realities. I would realize later that the tears I shed were less about fear and more about how moved I was by the exchange of humanity between people simply trying to do right by one another, fighting for survival. The rawness of emotion was strangely therapeutic for me.

But through it all, for some inexplicable reason, I remained relatively calm. As the world was crumbling around me, my instincts told me to pause. So, I did, and I started writing. I wrote down all my thoughts and feelings, everything that mattered most: our people, our customers, our revenue, our options. What started off as a foggy haze soon shifted to a laser focus.

Our team started leaning on each other for answers and the more we thought and the more we shared the more we started finding interesting ideas and solutions to our nightmare. It didn’t take long for us to spring into action. 

I hope by sharing some of what we did as a team, it will help you form your own ideas and strategies for the environment you find yourself in. I don’t believe there is one right answer, but I do believe that by sharing our ideas as a community, the collective brain power can be a force for survival.

Here are five key strategies we put in place in the wake of Covid-19:

Make it ok to cry

We quickly acknowledged the most important thing was supporting our people’s emotions and mindsets because without a healthy mindset, every tactic and initiative we employed would be far less effective.

We doubled down on psychological safety by creating a team mantra and guidelines to help people keep their focus on healthy, productive areas.

Here is what they are:

  • Be insanely helpful with everyone you interact with. Show up for them. Be present. Tell them how you can help- don’t ask them
  • Focus only on things you can control
  • Show up as you really feel; avoid wearing ‘masks’ within the team
  • Speak your brutal truth with love and compassion
  • Have courage to share your unique ideas
  • Communicate daily as a team
  • Deal in facts, not hearsay

Check the vitals of your business

We built financial models and scenarios to determine how much cash we had to weather the storm. This included cutting all discretionary spending and negotiating with vendors for payment relief wherever possible. The scenarios also called for pay cuts to management and potential temporary layoffs. The focus of the scenario planning was putting the survival our business ahead of everything else.

Create a transparent communication plan

We told people the brutal facts about our realities. We only spoke about the things we knew for certain and didn’t attempt to convey confidence based on uncertain or false hope. We asked for tough questions and we answered them with the best information we had available.

We also implemented an all staff daily 15-minute huddle at 8am, committed to a daily end of day communication briefing, and scheduled an end of week afternoon “huggle” session to have a drink with the team and enjoy lighter conversation.

Focus and guide the creative energy

Crisis can create a great deal of creativity when, left unchecked, becomes confusing and distracting. We created an evaluation criterion for new ideas that consisted of the following:

  • Is it impactful?
  • Is it unique?
  • Is it cost effective?
  • Is it easily executed?

We also split our company into three teams and held innovation sessions to generate a list of ideas, service offerings, and strategies to deal with our new reality.

Clarify an aspirational goal

Even in a crisis, the absence of a compelling, aspirational goal can turn even the most interesting work into just “work”. People have an innate desire to know their work matters, so we created a short-term aspirational goal. 

We decided that our main objective during the crisis would be to capture hearts and minds and that all our efforts should be focused on that goal. Focusing on the right goal can completely change the mindset and behaviour toward achieving it.

Focusing on market share is cold and unfeeling. Capturing hearts and minds entails nurturing, vulnerability and caring support. There’s quite a difference there.

Early indications are that we did several things right and our business has stabilized, but it’s still early. The future is unpredictable how we’ll be impacted the longer this crisis stretches on.

We re-calibrate and adjust on a weekly basis as markets change and new information emerges. Organizations are suffering but I continue to be inspired by the resiliency of our community. The road ahead is uncertain, and the recovery and re-birth will largely depend on our ability to work together and build strong foundations of community and partnership. We’re all in this together, but only if we choose to be and only if our actions align with our words.

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