Living through the initial acute world-wide response to the COVID-19 pandemic includes feeling the immense societal impacts and observing the leadership role in this period. From this response, I have seen many great communications provided by government and public health agencies, as well as some fantastic articles from the business community.
As a leader of a small and mid-sized enterprise (SME) which works with hundreds of SMEs I’d like to focus this piece on the SME response. There is an added challenge for SMEs to translate the rational, well researched advice coming from “the top” into actionable decisions. Their thin teams and few resources leave little room to throw much at the new challenges popping up. That said, we SMEs are not without options and as leaders, much of the usual principles still apply with slight modifications.
McKinsey’s latest update Leadership in a Crisis offers tactics leaders can adopt during the COVID-19 pandemic and is an example of a good resource from the business community. Here are my take-aways from the article modified to work in the context of smaller businesses.
Aside: I have really enjoyed many of the great updates and resources being put out by McKinsey and recommend them as a source to find business inspiration and insights from.
Organizing to Respond with a Network of Teams
A small group of executives – often only one in SMEs – cannot alone collect all the information required to make effective decisions when facing unfamiliar, poorly understood problems.
Instead of trying to strong arm it yourself, consider organizing a network of teams (the McKinsey graphic below shows a great, larger-team structure for this). For SMEs I would suggest these two teams, composed of non-executives who report to the executive(s):
Team A: Response Team: focused on actions outside the regular business activities
Team B: Business Operations Team: focused on implications on routine business activities and how to adjust and respond to unfolding situations.
It is important that the leaders of these two teams connect daily with the executive leader(s) to align on principles as well as ensuring the right people are empowered to come up with solutions and make decisions. As the business’ leader, be clear on what decisions need to come back to you/the executives and what decisions Team A and B can make without prior approval.
As the business’ leader guiding these teams, promote psychological safety so people can openly discuss ideas, ask questions and express concerns without the fear of repercussions. No need to add any anxiety to an already stressful situation – see the next two points on this.
McKinsey & Company graphic demonstrating the above referenced team organization. Original can be found on their article “Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges” published March 2020.
Tone Comes From the Top
Think “deliberate calm and bounded optimism”; leaders can help unify their team by using a tone of confidence combined with realism. Credibility loss stems from diminishing reality with excessive confidence regardless of obvious challenges.
Deliberate calm of all leaders, including those in your network of teams, demonstrates the ability to detach and think clearly to navigate wisely. Be optimistic about the ability to get through this but bound it with recognition of the uncertainty that you will all need to grapple with.
Decision Making with the Pause-Assess-Anticipate-Act Cycle
The reality is likely that you won’t have all the facts to make the ‘right’ decisions, nor can you wait too long to act, nor just rely on intuition (which likely won’t exist yet anyways, considering a lack of pandemic response muscle memory).
While you can’t wait too long, there is value in injecting moments of pause to assess the situation from a different vantage point. This can allow you to consider a larger framework to evaluate a course of action and make decisions and to consider how well past decisions are working.
Changing your mind on a decision made yesterday is not a sign of leadership weakness, so try not to fixate on it like it is. McKinsey recommends two cognitive behaviours that can aid leaders as they assess and anticipate:
Updating: this involves revising ideas based on new information teams collect
Doubting: allows leaders to consider ongoing and potential actions critically and
decide if they should be modified, adopted or dropped
By thinking with an updating and doubting approach, it will help to avoid impulses to base solutions on what has been done before or to come up with new solutions without considering past lessons.
Empathetic Leadership is Key in a Time of Human Tragedy and Personal Suffering
Leaders, including us small business owners, have a unique and privileged opportunity to make a positive difference in peoples’ lives. This is always true, but even more so during times of human suffering.
As a leader, you have an opportunity to acknowledge the personal and professional challenges that your employees and their loved ones are experiencing. Yet you also have the power to take corresponding measures to support them through this.
In SMEs, the financial resources may not be available to alleviate the personal fiscal pressures, (we have to hope the government will continue to offer the appropriate supports to assist in this), but this may be the time to look at what you have that can provide support. Is there an operating line in place that can bridge payrolls, can you give assurances about jobs, find flexible ways of working while staff remain at home either in isolation or caring for others, promote connections not just for work, but for social and other activities? Your staff have lost most of the supports used to run their lives…. what can you reintroduce virtually? Virtual social meet ups, virtual exercise classes, point to virtual places of worship in the community, etc.
Communicate Frequently and With Transparency
Rule of thumb with internal communications: don’t wait and communicate often. Also, it does not just need to come from the executive team. Instead, rely on your network of teams and empower others to engage with each other. Let your team leads speak to their reports about what they are doing and ensure they are frequently staying in contact.
Transparency is the most important job of a leader during uncertain times. Be clear about what you know or don’t know, be honest about what you intend to do, be prepared to and open to adjust as you need, create channels for open, honest and safe dialogue with your team.
Leadership is all about setting a course and navigating through uncertain conditions – so put your steady hands on the wheel, look up and move forward with calm, confidence and clarity.
About the Author
Margo Crawford is the President and CEO of Business Sherpa Group. Learn more about Margo here.