5 Leadership Opportunities for Employers Coming Out of the COVID-19 Crisis

Leadership Lessons from COVID-19

In the early months of the COVID-19 crisis, leaders had to tend to immediate operational emergencies, such as interruptions in the supply chain and changes in the workforce.

As the months go on and employers continue to deal with the pandemic, leaders will have a new set of challenges to face.

Although the sense of uncertainty and the ability to adapt quickly to changing circumstances won’t change anytime soon, employers will need to adjust to some sort of “new normal” and eventually set their sights on what recovery will look like.

Good leaders will take every opportunity to inspire and guide their employees through this challenging time. Here are five of can’t-miss opportunities for leadership during a crisis:

1. Assess Failures and Mistakes

If you’re starting to shift out of crisis control mode and re-embrace some of the things that your company did before the pandemic hit (such as working in the office), it’s a good time to pause and take stock of how your organization has handled things so far.

This has been a stressful time for everyone, and employees who are trying to return to some sense of normalcy appreciate — and need — to feel a sense of trust from employers. If they can’t trust that their safety is being taken seriously, for example, and that there’s a plan to keep their jobs safe, it may be more difficult for them to come in and get their work done.

Honesty and directness are crucial to building trust, and one way to be honest is to be direct about any times that things weren’t handled well as the pandemic hit.

This isn’t the time for finger-pointing or the blame game. (In fact, it’s never time for that.) Evaluations of the past should be approached in the spirit of embracing the opportunity to improve and making a plan to change for the next time.

You can get as much feedback as possible from invested employees to get their input on how they think things could change or improve for the future.

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2. Embrace Uncertainty

Many of the systems and processes we took for granted before this pandemic have been upended. Who would have guessed at the beginning of the year that people would be afraid to physically go inside stores and restaurants?

From adjusting to a remote workforce, to enforcing health guidelines in the workplace, to adjusting your products and services to new norms of customer behavior, the past months have been a lesson in operating through volatility.

Although we all wish for a semblance of normalcy again, part of the lesson leaders should learn is that uncertainty must be anticipated and even embraced.

This McKinsey & Company article uses an airplane analogy to describe the conditions that businesses and organizations have had to deal with. Before, we may have essentially been running on autopilot. But moving forward, we must always have our hands directly on the controls.

As they state in the article: “Drawing lessons from these unsettled months, the CFO must permanently build speed and flexibility into forecasting, planning, and resource-allocation processes and incorporate new tools and rapid decision-making protocols into the finance team’s day-to-day work.”

This is important for individuals dealing with finances, as they mention, but leaders in every department need to continue to stay flexible and innovate rapidly.

3. Continue to be a Helper

The best leaders will go beyond the hard numbers and address how their employees, customers, and community are feeling in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

Quoted in this SHRM column, Ira Bedzow, UNESCO Chair in Bioethics at New York Medical College, recommends that leaders “take some time every day to think broadly of the social implications of the new normal and not simply the immediate financial ones.”

After all, employers’ responsibilities go well beyond cutting paychecks. Paying attention to morale and providing a sense of meaning for employees who may well be feeling stressed and demoralized can make a huge difference in how your organization operates.

This piece from Chief Learning Officer suggests collecting data and stories that show how your team has helped employees, customers, and communities during the pandemic — for example, how you supported furloughed employees or distributed supplies. Showing how you helped can aid with the healing and recovery process.

Continue to listen carefully to employees at all levels of the organization to assess what they need from you and how they think you could improve.

4. Create a Vision for the Future

Despite the uncertainty that we’re all still dealing with, your employees will still eventually need a clear vision for what they’re working toward. And at some point, leaders will have to transition from managing in the moment to shifting toward planning for the future.

Deloitte describes this point as entering the second stage of three critical timeframes: Respond, Recover, and Thrive.

“Defining the destination first and then working backward is an approach that can help leaders create more aggressive and creative plans,” the authors write.

It can be an empowering exercise to just let your leadership team visualize success outside of the worries and constraints of the present. Give yourself a chance to get creative and dream up what success could look like in light of how the world has changed before you start to drill down to tactics you’ll need to use to get there.

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5. Reassert Company Values

As we move into recovery mode, serious leadership challenges still exist in maintaining some of the changes that have been evolving over the past months.

Namely, the need to observe new health and safety guidelines in the workplace may cause conflict and frustration among employees.

As ELI founder Stephen M. Paskoff wrote in his post Back to A Changing Workplace, this is an opportunity for leaders to step in and re-assert values.

Successful leadership during a crisis requires a plan for how to handle situations like employees refusing to adopt new distancing or masking requirements, or complaining that new protective standards aren’t good enough.

Leaders also need to be especially prepared for political or cultural tension caused by pandemic-related issues.

Here’s what Paskoff suggests: “To minimize the divisiveness that these and other issues may raise, employers must proactively recommit to operating in-line with their values with the same intensity devoted to their new medical and compliance standards. What happens now will determine whether their stated principles will be operationally critical or discarded when tough times hit.”

Now is a great time to empower your leaders with the tools and training that will help them communicate the right messages and values to employees. Training can even be done completely virtually, and the best online programs are much more engaging and interactive than ever before.

Want to learn more? Click here to learn about ELI’s Civil Treatment Training for Leaders.

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