Leading Through COVID-19: Preparing for Variability

As more and more details emerge on how we are going to begin returning to public spaces, it is becoming clear that where you live and what you do will have a major impact on when this will happen. Additional variables like your personal risk factors, the risk factors of those around you and decisions your organization makes will almost ensure that our paths to recovery will diverge from this point forward. Although the next few months of our lives will look drastically different depending upon those variables, certain aspects of our approaches to leadership will have an air of uniformity.

No matter whether your organization saw a boom in business, a need to shift how you operate or was halted altogether, some of the approaches we take as leaders will have to be the same because we are leading people through the same event. All of us have been impacted in some form or fashion. In many ways, that is the thing that distinguishes COVID-19 from so many other historical calamities. These challenges vary greatly based on personal circumstances, but the thing that is consistent is that everyone has gone through the same health crisis. And there are certain things they all need from their leaders right now.

Every Return is Different

Although CLS holds no expertise in the subject and would never dispense medical advice, we do feel comfortable dispensing leadership advice based on medical consensus. Experts in the field of health would suggest that COVID-19 impacts different people differently, some groups are at higher risk than others and even amongst the lower risk populations, some individuals have suffered severe consequences. In light of these facts, as a leader, you must understand that there is not going to be a magical return day where everything goes back to normal. It is even possible that you are the one that chooses to or is forced to delay a return based on personal risk factors, risk factors of those in your home or some other reason. Understand that certain members of your team may not be able to come back and work normally just because others in your organization begin to do so. After you know more about your regional and organizational return plan, start communicating this to your team members so you can better understand what is possible for them personally. Develop your plan and communicate expectations to your team based on the outcome of these conversations and extend understanding to people that do not feel comfortable returning to normal for whatever reason.

Set the Tone

Now that some of us are beginning to see details as to what a return may look like, it is easy to let your mind feel a sense of relief. It is undoubtedly relieving to know that we will be returning to some semblance of normal life, but that does not mean we can take it easy. Whether your organization did well or poorly during these past two months, you are going to have to continue working at a much higher than normal pace for the foreseeable future. Whether you saw an unexpected spike in demand and you have to go back to build in structure or you saw a drop in demand and have to bounce back quickly in order to avoid further consequences, you are going to have to continue working at a higher level for months to come. Share this truth openly and honestly with your team and do what you must do to keep them motivated throughout. It is also important to let them know that, even though it has been and will continue to be a very difficult stretch, this will end at some point.

Specific plans are starting to emerge and this has led to a growing sentiment that the worst is behind us. This may be true but, as every living person knows, unexpected things happen and we simply do not know for sure. It is important that leaders communicate that message clearly and set the expectation that returning does not mean going back to normal.

It is also critical that all leaders understand it themselves. Not everyone is coming back and we are all going to have to operate differently in order to protect those most at risk. It certainly feels good to be getting closer, but leaders must know that we are not getting closer to anywhere we have been before.