Like you, I am social distancing, working from home, meeting with clients and colleagues via Zoom, and striving to make the best of and adapt to our current way of life. My executive coaching clients are too. They are leading teams virtually (and in person if their roles are essential), and they are talking to me about what it’s like. Based on my conversations with them and my observations of other leaders during this crisis, there are three important skills that leaders at all levels and in all industries/institutions need to practice on a daily basis to be effective and successful during these unprecedented times:
1. Empathy –Leaders need to approach their situations with boatloads of empathy. First, they need to be empathetic with themselves regarding how this crisis is affecting them as leaders. Then they need to be empathetic with their constituents, colleagues (direct reports, peers, managers), and clients, remembering that they all have real and unique challenges, concerns, and ways of dealing with them.
It is a time to be caring, compassionate and thoughtful about others’ situations, and touse quiet and active listening skills in all interactions and communications so people feel respected, cared for, heard, and understood. Some tips for active listening are…
- Reach out respectfully and sensitively to direct reports, key stakeholders, and customers to let them know you are thinking of them, and want to hear about and address their unique needs and concerns should they decide to share them.
- Ask questions, be patient, and give people time to elaborate regarding their needs, agendas, and ideas.
- Paraphrase what you hear to ensure you are understanding their messages correctly.
- Empathize when appropriate by restating the feelings you are hearing and the reasons for those feelings.
- Summarize what you and others have agreed to do so people are clear about next steps.
2. Informing – Given the severity and scope of this COVID-19 crisis, people need and want to hear from their leaders on a frequent, regular basis. Effective leaders…
- Are forthcoming, real, and honest about the crisis and the challenges they are facing.
- Tell their people that they understand and care about what they are going through, and that they are working to make things better for them.
- Inform people of what’s happening, what’s being implemented, how it will work, and how it will benefit them, and those they serve/care about.
- Ensure that people know what is expected of them, and how important it is that they do their part for the team.
- Admit mistakes, and communicate how errors and oversights will be rectified.
- Communicate positivity and faith that their team will get through the challenge, as well as gratitude for everything everyone is doing to make that happen.
3. Creative Problem-Solving – In times of change and uncertainty, it’s normal for people to become anxious and engage in “fight or flight” behavior. That old amygdala kicks in, and thoughts and emotions can go “off to the races” with fear, negativity, and stuck thinking. But now more than ever, leaders need to rise above these natural tendencies, and require themselves and others to be as creative as possible to overcome obstacles and solve unprecedented problems.
Like you, I have heard of and seen many examples of this in my daily work, as well as on the daily news. People with “can do” attitudes and resourceful mindsets come up with ingenious solutions to unrelenting challenges. They maintain positivity, flexibility, and a “get it done” approach to galvanize people/resources and implement steps to deliver innovative solutions. Here are a few examples that I’ve witnessed since this crisis began:
- A leader who divided his manufacturing staff of essential workers into two separate alternating teams to maximize social distancing and minimize production disruption in case a person in one team falls ill.
- A hospital administrator and his staff who prepared for overflow patients by creating an extra ward in their parking lot, and furnished it with existing reclining hospital room chairs fashioned with “shepherd’s staff” plant holders to hold IVs.
- The Massachusetts governor, NFL team owner, US and foreign diplomats, hospital administrators and all of their staff who worked together tirelessly and overcame huge obstacles to deliver 1 million masks to Massachusetts General Hospital via a “Patriots” airplane.
These are leaders who stepped up, challenged, and motivated themselves and their teams to create and deliver innovative solutions to meet critical needs. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and it’s a leader’s job to foster an environment where creative problem-solving and flexibility are modeled, expected, and rewarded.
Of course, there are other important skills that leaders will need to use to help their teams survive and rise above these incredibly challenging times. But if they faithfully exercise these three leadership skills every day, they and their staff will have more goodwill, faith, camaraderie, energy, ideas, and determination to work together to deal with whatever they might face tomorrow.