Leadership In The Era Of Uncertainty: Great Companies Are Built In Difficult Times

Our employees, teammates, and managers have been losing steam at times throughout 2020, and leaders have had to find ways to re-energize their organizations.

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As 2020 comes to an end, it is safe to say that teams and leaders have spent more time apart than together. The leap in productivity that we saw in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic (panic working, anyone?) has been making way to a dip in alignment, creativity, and overall well-being throughout the year. It feels adequate to ask ourselves, will 2020 result in a global burnout?

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Our employees, teammates, and managers have been losing steam at times throughout 2020, and leaders have had to find ways to re-energize their organizations. A big part of leading is taking on the risk on behalf of your teams, so that they can focus on getting the work done. In a world filled with ambiguity and uncertainty, this becomes practically impossible.

In the early days of the global lockdown, I remember having a conversation with a friend and professor from business school about how to lead in the pandemic. His words still resonate with me today: “When something unpredictable happens, we lose the ability to predict the future. We’re not talking about a six-sigma event here. Six-sigma events are unlikely, but entirely predictable. If you don’t have the ability to lead by looking into the future, then the only thing that you know for certain is the past. That is to say, the company’s history and its values.”

My friend’s words are echoed in Andrew Grover’s book, High Output Management. Andrew’s view is that in times of high complexity, uncertainty, ambiguity (CUA), behavior is influenced by cultural values (as articulated and exemplified by the manager), rather than by expectation-setting (through role definitions, objectives-based management, and performance reviews). Relying on the usual mechanisms of goal setting, key performance indicators (KPIs), and performance management to steer the company feels disconnected from reality. After all, we are unable to tell our employees if the office will be open next week, let alone what their sales targets should be.

As leaders, we have also been exposed to far more personal information about our team members than ever before. We now (hopefully) know who lives with their elder mom, and who has a cat to care for, if someone’s child has been exposed to the virus, and the color of the walls in everyone’s homes. To cope with this new world, new management approaches are needed. And while it might seem counterintuitive for managers to relinquish their usual methods of control when everything seems to be veering out of control, that is exactly what one should do, and here’s how.

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1. Lead from a place of values By knowing so much more about each other, we are given an opportunity to exercise our humanity. The one thing people always remember is how they were treated, and how they treated each other. As a leader, it’s your job to set the tone. Go back to the roots of why your company exists, why your team exists, what you are there to accomplish together, and how you will do that.

Exercise empathy towards your teams, your peers, your leadership, but also towards yourself. Every person is making the best choices that they can, given the amount of information that they have, including you.

If you’re a middle manager, don’t let what is happening in the broader organization be an excuse for poor management. You are the CEO of a micro-organization. Your team will march to the beat of your drum. 

If your team is now working remotely, and you’re starting to feel the cracks, try to find ways to reignite the shared culture and connection through rituals. At my company, Cosmic Centaurs, we celebrate wins by having ice cream, no matter where in the world each of us is. We start our first meeting of the day with a check-in, making sure everyone is emotionally ready and supported to face the day. We prioritize team time over everything else. Everyone shows up to daily standups, every day, on time. In doing so, we are sending out the message that we care for one another, and that we respect each other’s time.

More importantly, stay positive and hopeful about the future. Leaders and entrepreneurs are able to create value in new markets by being optimists. They imagine things that no one else can see, and create a reality distortion field that engulfs their teams, clients, partners, allowing them to build a new reality. Without optimism, none of this is possible.

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2. Be well informed As a leader, you also have to make sure you are educated on the data points that inform your decisions and keep you focused on the goal. For example, one data point that keeps us optimistic is knowing that 50% of Fortune 500 companies were created during economic downturns.

Remaining optimistic requires you to lead with the positive indicators, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore the negatives. For example, if you are considering a change in work models, you should be able to very clearly lay out the positive impact it can have on engagement, productivity, and employee wellness, but also outline the potential downfalls of mismanaging the transition.

Educate yourself, take time out of your day, away from the unending zoom calls, and distractions of email and slack messages to read, watch, or listen. You may find inspiration from industries or problems that are very far away from your reality. After all, there is value in range.

Range doesn’t just come from your own education, it also comes by listening to people who are different from you and who can bring in new solutions to old (or new) problems. David Epstein’s book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph In A Specialized World, has numerous anecdotes depicting this. He talks about InnoCentive, a company that specializes in crowdsourcing solutions for intractable problems. InnoCentive found that “the further the problem was from the solver’s expertise, the more likely they were to solve it.”

Make your learning process transparent and involve others in the ideation. By doing so, you demonstrate that experimentation is rewarded, and failure is just a step on the way to better outcomes.

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3. Make the tough decisions And while it’s important to involve diverse teams in the data gathering phase, consensus doesn’t scale. Data tells us about the past (unless it’s a simulation)- it only allows us to measure what has already happened. Inventing the future is in our hands. The famous physicist and Nobel laureate, Richard Feynman notably said, “When you don’t have any data, you have to use reason.”

Whether your organization is exploring new work models, setting targets, downsizing part of the business, or developing alternative revenue streams, making decisions in uncertain times might require you to listen to your instinct, whether the data agrees with you or not. Only leaders can make the hard calls and take accountability for the outcomes. It’s what we get paid to do.

Gitlab, a 1,300 employee remote-only company, widely recognized as an innovator in remote work models, has famously separated the data gathering process (that is open to all), from the decision making process. A single person called the direct responsible individual (DRI) is responsible and accountable, and everyone else is consulted and informed. This type of decision making only works because GitLab’s culture is one of iteration, learning, trust, and kindness.

4. Influence the outcome Just because you make the hard decisions doesn’t mean you should micromanage their execution. You should probably decentralize the process as much as you can. The closer someone is to the front line of an organization, the more feedback they get from the market, and the more able they are to react to new realities. On one condition- that they are empowered to do so.

As a leader, people look to you to understand what is important and how to prioritize their tasks. The projects you keep track of, the meetings you attend, are all indicators that they rely on to make decisions about what’s important. The way you spend your time is the best way to influence the outcomes of those projects.

The other lever that you have to influence outcomes, is to role model behavior. How you deal with setbacks, your ability to accept change and deal with it head-on, how humane you are in dealing with others, but also how decisive, motivated and positive you remain in trying times.

A lot is riding on your ability to stay informed, make decisions, foster culture, and lead your team or organization forward. People always say that leadership is a lonely place, but it doesn’t have to be. Asking for help is not only good for your mental health but also a great way to model a collaborative culture. Re-energizing teams means developing their resilience, collaboration, and imagination.

Rather than wonder if we are on the verge of collective burnout, consider how your company can reap the benefits of a changing world, by identifying new opportunities and having the energy to execute on them. Your best weapon is your culture. Build an organization that proves that great companies are built in difficult times.

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Marilyn Zakhour

Written By

Marilyn Zakhour is the founder and CEO of Cosmic Centaurs, a consulting, training, insights, and technology company helping organizations build and reimagine the future of work and learning. She has experience in organizations of all sizes and knows how to bring the agility of small startups to big corporations.

Previously Chief Marketing Officer of EMAAR, and Head of Dubai Opera, Marilyn holds an executive MBA from INSEAD. She has also spent 10 years in the startup world, building and running digital native companies.

Marilyn is a strong believer that regardless of industry, country, profession, and context, value creation is about creating a safe space and a clear process for teams to collaborate and create freely.