Mar 23, 2020 | Uncategorized

This month, leaders across America took a collective step into the unknown. It’s something we do when we have a reason to step together for a common purpose.

We did it after December 7, 1941, when our isolation from war ended after Japan staged a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s something we did after President Kennedy gave what has become known as his moonshot speech on May 26, 1961, to challenge us to put a man on the moon and bring him home safely before the end of the decade. It’s something we did after September 11, 2001, as we watched members of the House and Senate gather for a moment of silence for victims of 9/11 then spontaneously breaking into “God Bless America.”

Times of collective uncertainty like the one we are facing now with the Covid-19 virus require leaders of organizations across the country to unite as we face the unknown together. From the empty shelves at the grocery store to the plunging stock markets to the steep disease progression graphs, it’s a lot to deal with. And, yet, as leaders, we still have to help our teams navigate through an uncertain future. When our people look to us for answers that we don’t have, there are still things we can do lead through the unknown.

Have “Ice in the Belly”

Being a leader in turbulent times can be nerve wracking. If you act too fast, it might turn out that you overreacted. If you act too slow, your organization may not survive. It would be wise to have what in Swedish is called Is i magen, “ice in the belly.” Roughly translated, it’s your ability to keep your cool in a critical situation.

As bad as things look, economic aid may be coming to help prevent layoffs as explained by Neel Kashkari, the head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Kashkari is speaking from experience. He ran the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in 2008 which helped end the Great Recession and is sharing lessons learned with a level head.

Address the Lion in the Camp

Having ice in the belly does not mean that you are cool to the needs of your staff. Just as we’re seeing daily press briefings from the White House and leaders on the front lines like Governor Mario Cuomo, your team needs to see your face and hear your voice regularly. Social distancing does not mean emotional distancing. You don’t have to have all the answers, but you do still need to lead with compassion. As of late last week, a Glassdoor survey of nearly 1,000 employed U.S. adults showed that nearly three in ten (28%) respondents said their employer has done nothing in response to concerns of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Leaders often wait to communicate during a crisis—especially when questions outnumber answers. But keeping quiet will only amplify confusion and push employees to assume the worst. Stop employees from spiraling further into crisis mode by clearly and frequently communicating what has happened and what is needed in the short- and long-term to deal with the crisis. Honest communication—no matter how dire or uncertain the situation—allows you to bring your team and internal stakeholder up to speed on your organization’s strategy to chart a path forward. Acknowledge the lion, talk about it, and work together to deal with it.

Consider All the Options

Before layoffs, consider your non-obvious options for reducing cost. A four-day work week for roles where you have excess capacity will reduce staff cost by nearly 20% (assuming some costs will remain due to overhead and benefits). Some employees might agree to working half-time if they know that doing so will save jobs.

You can also offer employees the opportunity for unpaid leave if they so wish. Framing this leave as a sabbatical can help take some of the stigma of the absence away. In fact, you might find that some employees welcome these options and wish they could have had them all along. By making it clear that one of your overriding goals is to avoid layoffs, you might find that employees are amenable to the personal sacrifices inherent in salary-increase freezes, halting bonuses, bans on overtime, pausing of payments into retirement funds, reduction of vacation days, and other cost-saving measures. Your employees will appreciate taking part in trying creative approaches to minimize headcount reduction.

Going through a downturn and making tough decisions to keep your company afloat is hard. However, if you communicate frequently and act with a clear head you will show your team the much-needed leadership needed to pull us through this collective cause.

Question: What will your employees remember about your leadership during these uncertain times?


Driven by the premise that excellence is the result of aligning people, purpose and performance, Center for Executive Excellence facilitates training in leading self, leading teams and leading organizations. To learn more, subscribe to receive CEE News!



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