3 Ways to Lead Through Crisis at a Distance In turbulent times, when stress is high and team members are isolated, communication and empathy go a long way
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Startup CEOs are constantly navigating through uncertainty. But this past year has tested their leadership abilities like never before. In addition to staying focused on growth and customer satisfaction in a rapidly changing, unpredictable environment, they also need to be keenly attuned to their employees, who are being strained by new pressures — whether that's adapting to working at home with remote-learning kids, caring for a sick family member or being unable to connect in person with friends and family. All of these stressors have made it particularly challenging to lead a fast-growing company.
I've spent a lot of time speaking with CEOs about how they're leading through this period of intense change. I hope that by sharing some of their best practices and advice, it can help you answer some critical questions, such as: As a CEO, how do you connect with your employees and make sure everyone is moving in the same direction? How do you ensure your employees don't get burned out, while continuing to grow in rocky market conditions?
Their top three pieces of advice: Show empathy and support, listen and make an effort to build community.
1. Show empathy and support employees in the home office and at home
Making day-to-day life easier for your employees while supporting their families shows you care about more than just what they can do for you, and it also means you can contribute to improvements in their mental health, morale and productivity.
Shortly after shelter-in-place restrictions kicked in, Nick Mehta, CEO of Gainsight, looked for ways to support his employees who were suddenly working from home. He created a Covid Counsel to monitor employee burnout and stress as they adjusted to remote work; made sure employees whose family members were impacted by the virus had groceries and other support; and sent one-time stipends for employees to set up their home offices. A number of Gainsight's employees have taken advantage of consistent, scheduled gaps in their day to support their family obligations, as well as a generous "take what you need" PTO policy.
Other CEOs report adopting similar strategies. In a recent survey by Salesforce Ventures, the group I lead, 80% percent of the companies surveyed reported offering new benefits like hosting meditation sessions and revamping leave policies to help employees unplug and take care of their mental health.
Highspot instituted a "no-meetings" policy between noon and 1 p.m. to make lunchtime a little easier on parents — a decision that came after listening to employees. "There is truly no one-size-fits-all, so we trust our people managers to create safe, flexible environments for their teams, and they've risen to the moment," Highspot CEO Robert Wahbe says. "Whether scheduling around remote school or other childcare needs throughout the day or dedicating team time to self-care, we've seen our managers reimagine their approaches using compassion and empathy."
Rachel Carlson, CEO of Guild Education, instituted "Camp Guild," a series of virtual sessions run by other employees — many of whom are former teachers and camp counselors — to entertain and teach the children of Guild employees while their parents are at work. "This is a challenging time for so many people, and we're working to ensure our employees have all the support and resources they need. It's presented new challenges and stress for everyone," Carlson says. "We have always focused on leading with empathy. And more than ever, we, and leaders at other companies, need to take a people-centric approach."
2. Prioritize communication — even more than usual — and listen more
The most effective leaders foster an environment of open communication, including providing forums for direct conversations about difficult topics. "Opportunities to be heard and provide feedback are the best ways we've been able to maintain morale," Gainsight's Mehta says. "When teammates know they can be heard from different areas of the company, they know they are supported."
Highspot's Wahbe emphasized the importance of honesty and realism while leading through a crisis: "As opposed to shrinking from the issues of the pandemic or trying to make it go away, we're facing them," he says. "Once we're sharing truths, we can empathize with each other, which, in turn, has opened up newfound avenues of support in ways both big and small." Wahbe recalled a time when Highspot's HR manager began a 100-person meeting with a "square breathing" exercise: He could audibly hear their collective sense of relief. "Through real dialogue, honesty and communication, we've been able to pull the challenges we're all facing into the light, where they're not as scary," he says.
Part of helping people feel more comfortable talking about their needs is letting them know they aren't alone. "It's been powerful to normalize the conversation about mental health — providing benefits and talking about it is something we'll keep doing," Carlson says.
3. Reinforce company values through community
Creating and sustaining genuine connections between employees is vital to employee health, satisfaction and performance — especially when everyone is physically far apart and spontaneous conversations are so hard to come by.
Mihir Shukla, CEO of Automation Anywhere, has been able to stay in touch with how the employees are feeling through "pulse" surveys. Shukla says the most important initiative has been an online gathering called "TenForward Lounge," a digital event space where employees can engage in conversations via moderators and share their thoughts and feelings. "It's also an opportunity to reinforce company values," Shukla says. "They have magnified our sense of purpose and provided clarity of direction during the uncertainty. When you no longer have physical walls defining the workplace, company values become the walls that bind in a virtual world. I will continue to rely on our values and our teammates with even greater resolve."
Gainsight leadership has also worked to build and sustain its community. The company created a private Digital Lounge where teammates can get support; roundtables for group discussion and a 10-week "Human-First Manager Training" program where successful managers trained others in how to lead remotely through this crisis. They also offered a Zoom-based company-wide holiday celebration where everyone could come together. "Many teammates have said they feel more connected to the company than they did before," Mehta says.
This pandemic has been a tragedy of global and historic proportions. We have all lost something. Some of us much more than others. But I was struck by a word Mihir Shukla used in his description of the types of things he's listening for in conversations with his team: optimism.
In a survey of enterprise tech CEOs we conducted this past fall, close to 90% of the respondents told us that, despite the hardships of this past year, they are optimistic about the future of remote work. If these CEOs can lead with confidence and heart through such unfamiliar circumstances while delivering growth and encouraging goodwill, we should all have reason for optimism.
Please note: All CEOs and companies included in the article are part of the Salesforce partner ecosystem.