4 Ways to Lead in the Best and Worst of Times to Drive Your Business
Here's how to pivot your approach to management to engage and motivate all employees, regardless of the current climate.
It feels like we're moving from one global crisis to the next with almost no reprieve, and I've found myself having more and more conversations with so many of my peers about the differences in leading through the peaks and valleys of this current cycle.
Whether the pandemic, global unrest or recession, CEOs are expected to lead, motivate and drive business. Yet the approach and tools required by the very same leaders are vastly different in good and bad times. So, the question is, how do you switch your leadership approach, and do you have a natural penchant for leading in one or the other?
Before going into the defining attributes for leaders, it's worth also unwrapping the difference at the ground level (i.e. the team). In times of crisis, people in organizations find solace and comfort in the team itself, in working and moving forward in the company of the group, whereas in more prosperous positive cycles one can argue that individuals find priority in their own personal meaning and journeys. Here's where you need to do more work to get employees to "feel" as if they are part of the larger team.
How to lead through good times and bad
The universal overarching emphasis for any CEO is to have the team believe, feel and act as part of a unit. The act of getting this done differs based on multiple external influencers driving the team's behaviors and, of course, the CEO's fundamental shift in connecting with teams across good times and bad.
CEOs managing during times of external (or internal) crisis must make decisive moves and goals, give clear instructions and bang the drum to rally the cohort, all while remaining resilient and strong. The key here is short, deliberate and focused communication with a high degree of repetition. The "ground" — a.k.a. your team — is scared, so they need clearer instructions and they need it frequently, as this is ultimately what gives them the safety net of being part of the team.
CEOs managing in less tumultuous times need to find more creative ways to get employees engaged and rallied, encouraging empathy and providing a space for people to think about entwining their purpose with that of the organization. This approach gives them more opportunity to interpret vision and ideas and lets them drive more of this on their own. While the team is driving forward, the CEO must also use a Swiss knife of activities, tools and frameworks to drive the family belonging forward.
In the conversations I've had with my peers over the past few years (good and bad times), here are tidbits of insights on how the two different CEO archetypes operate in the workplace and make business decisions.
1. Surviving and thriving is a team effort led by a strong compassionate leader
We all learned this critical lesson coming out of Covid-19 — and it is one we need to keep front of mind as we all face the next financial and geopolitical crises. We can't go at it alone, but at the same time, we find solace in the fact that there is a strong leader at the helm giving us the necessary updates. We need both leadership and a strong team to support the game plan. Without one, the other falls.
When the heat does turn up because of an externality, you also realize the importance of your company's culture and its power to hold the company together. In many respects, a calamity out of an externality is a crucible moment to turn on its head and use it as a way to tell your culture story the right way. Buddha always said, "true wisdom comes from experience, not the intellect."
2. Regardless of the global climate, CEOs need to be malleable
There isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership, and the key is to be able to quickly transition to support what is needed based on externality — you don't want to be the leader who is stuck in crisis mode when everyone is out on the prairies.
During Covid, the key learnings for me personally were both to be very decisive (i.e. know your plan) and then be able to communicate with both strength and empathy. In the same vein, you need to continuously be doing less, but doing it better — whether that is employee experience or product initiatives — and the key is to build a mentality of starvation as that keeps everyone in a heightened sense of mind and alertness.
Knowing how to prioritize the needs of the business, while balancing those of your employees, is integral to succeeding as a business leader. Being able to constantly shift those priorities to align with the current economic or geopolitical climate is even more important.
3. In a crisis, simplicity and intent are critical
As leaders in crisis, we need to focus on intent and make very direct — often hard — but simple decisions and directions for our team. Today, the current geopolitical climate is forcing our hands on how we do business and who we do business with.
As leaders, we must make these decisions and communicate them in a direct and clear manner. And we need to lean on our next in line to support these decisions. Having specialist teams focus on each decision and move it forward will keep intent and goals clear. When stress is high, your teams will always be driven by simple and clear directions.
4. Create a feeling of safety and progress, whatever the climate
It sounds obvious that your workplace should offer a sense of safety (wellness, equity and financial safety). But it's vital to your business in 2022, as it's only when you can create a "circle of safety" that everyone will pull together as a unified team.
It's our job as leaders to continue to provide both the safety that comes with good times and the security we were aiming for in the bad. How do we do that? It starts with setting a North Star for your team — where everyone in the organization has alignment on the team's wellbeing in addition to the company's purpose and direction — and that these things are easily understood as a part of the company's DNA.
From a directional standpoint, leaders should be relentless in pushing a reverse pyramid working model, where employees focus the majority of their energy on tasks critical to their job function, passions, and performance. This means that everyone is driven by a deliberate, authentic, and relentless pursuit of excellence.
Your teams need a leader who can create both safety and progress. By identifying, creating and embracing crucible moments that bring people together, you can find opportunities to strengthen your organization each and every day, regardless of what is going on around you.
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