Three minutes watching the evening news is all it takes. You’ll see snapshots that run the gamut — families dealing with illness and separation, businesses fighting to stay afloat, adults struggling to pay next month’s rent, kids just wanting to see their friends again.
As a person, and as a business leader, it’s so easy to see that and feel defeated. I’m sure in the last several weeks, we’ve all felt that way at times.
It’s a lot harder to stay positive. To keep putting one foot in front of the other and inspire your team to do the same.
I’ve been in the technology business for more than 20 years. I haven’t navigated a pandemic before, but I’ve navigated my fair share of adversity — from tough financial quarters and product launches that didn’t go as planned to losing great colleagues and the challenging 2008 economic crisis. The biggest lesson I’ve learned through all of that is resiliency carries us through uncertainty and change. And a real sense of optimism keeps my resiliency strong.
As business leaders, it’s our time to step up and do the hard thing of staying positive. Here are my five tenets for leading teams and companies during these challenging times.
Employees need their leaders to be real. This advice is evergreen, but it’s particularly critical in times of crisis. When in doubt, communicate, communicate, communicate. Transparency breeds trust. Your employees are smart — they don’t want to be lied to, and they don’t deserve to be lied to.
If the business is going through a tough time, say so. Call an all-hands meeting, and lay out the facts. Be candid, and outline what you and the leadership team will do about it. You don’t have to have perfect foresight, but the team wants to hear your outlook. Not only does this information help employees understand what needs to be done, but it builds trust and fosters greater employee satisfaction. That trust and satisfaction can instill a subtle but deeper positivity that balances the difficult news you may be communicating.
The same advice applies to customer relationships. Brands with open, honest lines of communication help build long-term loyalty with customers that can withstand even the most difficult periods.
My company hosts weekly “catch-up cafes” using Zoom to communicate with our distributed workforce. In addition to friendly socializing, these sessions are a forum for employees to ask tough questions. And they do!
When faced with criticism or pushback, it’s natural to get defensive. But don’t give in to defensiveness. Overcorrect by making yourself accountable. If you made a mistake, if the company needs to change strategy or if you had to make a really difficult decision, then own it. Demonstrating accountability will help others to make themselves accountable, too.
It’s sometimes perceived as a “negative,” but by holding yourself and your team accountable, you’re signaling to them you trust them to follow through on projects and succeed without being micromanaged.
Now more than ever, you are a human first and a boss second. Behind every great company are tens, hundreds or even thousands of individual people, their families and their support networks. Each of those people is now dealing with an entirely new set of stressors — from childcare and homeschooling to social isolation and health scares — that make day-to-day work much more difficult.
My advice is to listen more than you speak. Be patient, and allow for greater flexibility. Show grace, and reach out. Managers should check in frequently with direct reports, and team leads should schedule video calls with colleagues. This helps build connection and empathy, and it provides a space to discuss shared challenges.
For example, nearly every parent I know is struggling to balance work and child care right now. I have two kids, and when I share about my own struggles to balance work and my personal life, it allows me to relate with my colleagues on a more human level and grants them the space to do the same.
Even under “normal” circumstances, what keeps people coming back to work is the emotional bonds they share in the workplace. Lean into those relationships, and create small pockets of fun and positivity wherever you can. We can’t share coffee or lunch, but we can share a laugh. That could manifest through virtual “watercooler” discussions or “happy hours.” They can be with large teams, the entire company or small groups. They could be silly Slack threads, collaborative playlists, inviting pets to Zoom calls or having themed “spirit days.”
We all have a lot to be worried about, so even the smallest distraction can make such a difference. In a tough time like this, smiling and laughing doesn’t always come naturally. But if we keep encouraging each other to do so, it will become a habit.
In the middle of a pandemic, it’s difficult to look past tomorrow. But as a leader, you need to root your company with a unified goal that helps your team see past this moment. Offer a vision, and set clear objectives and ownerships. Give your team something to rally behind. This provides a sense of purpose and a chance for your team to celebrate wins along the way.
If your company already has a “true north” vision, then reinforce it, and communicate about how you’re tracking against it regularly. If your company has no formalized true north, solicit feedback from employees about what they think the true north is, and align with management to develop a unified vision. Then communicate it broadly so everyone knows their role in achieving the company’s goals.
For the sake of our employees, customers and communities, we need to be more than business leaders — we have to be leaders in all aspects. We must stay positive, even if it’s the hard thing.
This article was originally published to Forbes on June 18, 2020.