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We are in extraordinary times, with stress and uncertainties on people and businesses never experienced nor anticipated. Most firms would hint to you that 2020 looked like their best tee ever till the pandemic forcefully halted and changed the world as we know it. We are very much aware that things will never get to “normal”, instead a “new normal” which will favour those who pay the price now to prepare for even in the midst of all this turbulence.
I would describe leaders in this crisis period as bus drivers carrying a full load of students, caught in the midst of a terrible storm in the middle of nowhere.
At the beginning of the storm, the driver instinctively parks by the roadside for conditions to subside. But after a while, when the rains and winds have subsided, he knows he can’t keep the bus parked forever. He may call for help only to be told that conditions at the other side are worse hence no immediate help available. He must move. But this is where it becomes tricky because the storm has left in its wake a thick fog which limits the driver’s ability to see his way clear.
The driver is aware that it will take several days for the fog to completely clear, but he can’t wait forever with 50 kids. They will require at least food and water to survive. So, the bus driver decides to take the risk and move slowly and cautiously with the little sight of the road his eyes can afford him.
He will have to frequently get down, perhaps walk a few meters ahead with his torchlight to ensure that road stretch is safe and is rid of hazards like falling trees, then hops back into the bus and drive carefully till he finds the nearest town.
The truth is that a lot of businesses will collapse by the time this pandemic is over. So, what will it take for business leaders to survive during and after the COVID-19 crisis?
Like the bus driver, leaders have to warm up to the fact their span of control has greatly diminished because of this crisis. They won't be on top of issues as much as they would love to. It is okay to demonstrate vulnerability in a very authentic way to your followers without triggering fear in them.
Leaders don’t have the crystal ball to be able to predict how things will pan out even in the next few months. But what they can do is to adopt a very agile approach in studying the sharp learning curve of this crisis and the impact on consumers, trade partners, regulatory environment, etc. and making decisions with the insights gleaned from the learning curve for the short to medium term.
There should be a lot of transparency in business leaders’ dealings with their employees. A proper understanding of the impact of the crisis on cashflows, salaries, employee retention and business sustainability, shared on a consistent basis will be vital. Leaders should clearly define the baseline that must be achieved to sustain the business, what triggers will turn the business around etc. An informed employee will be more confident both in their leaders and future possibilities.
Hope is such a potent weapon to the human will to survive. It has been in many cases been the difference between those who survive adversities like a shipwreck, prison camps, sickness, and those who don’t.
There are well-documented experiments like two mice put in containers of water. The conditions of the containers are the same except that one container is placed in a completely dark room, whilst the other is placed in a room with a thin gleam of light. Interestingly the mice in the environment with the thin gleam of light tend to hold on longer than their contemporaries in the dark environment. That light-triggered hope of a possible rescue.
In the same vein employees will be more than willing to go the extra mile when they have hope of a better future when all this is over. Of course, we don’t know how long, but we are certain it will all be over, and things will get better someday. As a leader have you clearly painted a mental picture of what the future holds for your business when this crisis is over and shared with your employees?
The Human Touch
There is something about going the extra mile to connect with employees in times of crisis. Though you “see” them every day on those zoom calls, it is not enough. A two -minute personal phone call will do more to your employees than you could ever imagine. It even gets better when those personal calls are done at a skip level. As Maya Angelou puts it “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Let them know you care deeply about their well being and you are in this together. Those conversations shouldn’t be done out of compulsion but genuinely (for they can smell it if you are not being real). The dividends for those personal engagements will come in handy in the future.
The Gift of Time
We’ve never had so much time on our hands like this before. This crisis has given us the opportunity to spend quality time with our family, look into the eyes of our loved ones, and spend time doing things we genuinely cherish. But most importantly it has given us a window to re-evaluate ourselves as individuals. How effective are you as an employee? Are your strategies robust enough? Do you have to unlearn and overcome certain self-limiting beliefs and habits? Do you have the requisite skills to remain competitive in the future? I believe leaders can put some intention behind channelling this once in a lifetime window as a capacity-building period for their employees to ensure they are more competitive and resilient as a business when this crisis is over.
I will conclude by quoting from the good book “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” Romans 8:18
Things will get better in the end and you will emerge stronger, make sure you have prepped your business for the future.
(C)Roland Ofori Larbi (,Marketing Professional, Author)
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