Focus on People and the Rest Follows

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a social, financial, and psychological upheaval that disrupted life as we knew it. I was leading under circumstances I never imagined. Pre-pandemic, leaders were expected to remain steady in the face of a crisis. However, in the early days of the pandemic, it was evident that leadership required me continually to adapt to change. My new style of leadership is centered on quick decision-making, transparency, and empathy.

Make quick decisions with imperfect information

One of the challenges of leadership during the pandemic was that we did not have all the answers, but needed to move the team forward and provide exceptional service to our clients. I could not hunker down and cling to what was known in the past. Everything felt very different. When you don’t have all the facts, there is a natural tendency to delay decision-making until the information becomes clearer. I had to be decisive and take action based on imperfect information. I could not solve everything and please everyone, but I could act urgently with the flexibility to revisit those decisions. From the onset, I recognized that mistakes are inevitable, and how I responded to missteps was important. When I made mistakes, I acknowledged them, course corrected, and moved forward.

Communicate with transparency

With so much uncertainty around us, we do not want our leaders holding back information. It was important to be open and share what I knew and be honest about what I didn’t know without sugar coating. This meant communicating bad news accurately. I was clear about separating fact from opinion. For example, when I had to deliver a disappointing message, I would also speak about what I anticipated and what it could mean. In the absence of facts, my team seemed comforted that I had thought through several scenarios and provided some possibilities.

Start every difficult conversation with empathy

It is important for leaders to address the human side of the pandemic. In a work setting, we only see a fraction of what is happening in a person’s life. People were facing very different fears and concerns. Some struggled to work, Zoom-school children and live in the same space. Some had worries about the health and safety of family members. Many people were emotionally, physically, or financially stressed. Empathy is more than putting yourself in their shoes. Empathy is focusing on the well-being of colleagues and clients. This means allowing people to express their concerns and be heard without judgment. Focus on people and the rest follows.

The pandemic gave me an opportunity to revisit what I value in a leader. It was a time to remember who you are and why you do this job. I chose to lean into relationships. The tendency, especially when you don’t see each other face-to-face and are stretched with work and family obligations, is to let relationships lapse for lack of time. But you have to lean in and nurture your relationships because that is what allows you to endure the challenges of the pandemic.