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4 Ways To Be The Balanced Leader Your Team Needs In A Time Of Crisis

No one ever plans for an event like this, but here we are. Now is your chance to truly lead.

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Times are tough right now. As entrepreneurs and business leaders, we spend a great deal of time and energy recruiting the best team members, building a great culture, and motivating everyone with an inspirational, unifying vision. Blood, sweat, and tears are invested in growth and building the dream.  

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Then the unthinkable happens. The proverbial 100-year storm in the form of the global pandemic that is COVID-19. A crisis so pervasive that it has sent the economy spiraling, bringing even the best and most stable organizations to their knees.  Where your success and character as a leader are defined by your actions and emotions, more so than your revenue and traction. You’re not judged by if you’re making layoffs, but by how and when.

No one ever plans for an event like this, but here we are. Now is your chance to truly lead.

1. Be decisive, but not cold.

With a relatively strong catalog of historical downturns to reference, the advice has been resoundingly similar – make deep cuts and make them as soon as possible. When drawing up your plans, cut until it’s uncomfortable, cut a bit more, and then maybe it’ll barely be enough in the end. The goal is survival -- to preserve as much capital as possible to invest in rebuilding when the market begins to recover. Any time wasted in this process is delaying the inevitable and is costing you dearly.

Focus on the essential. Who and what do you need to keep in order to maintain your key relationships and fulfill the promise to your customers? Where can you create greater future value instead of wasting energy on maintaining the status quo? Everything else goes because you don’t want to have to be making another round of cuts soon into the future.

When it comes time to make the cuts, be human. Let people know they are valued. Send them out into the world knowing you felt something when making the tough decisions. You’ve probably received some great advice from your legal team about how to avoid lawsuits, but it doesn’t mean you have to be cold in your execution. Remember that your former employees will likely remain friends with your remaining employees, and they’ll most certainly have an opinion about you to the greater public. 

2. Be strong, but also vulnerable.

Grief. It’s what you and your team may feel after a round of layoffs. If you’ve worked hard to build a strong, tight-knit culture, a family, then you most certainly will. It’s okay. Grieve. Grieve with your team and let them know that their feelings are valid. Avoid contrived efforts of “team-building” in the aftermath of a layoff for fear of being insensitive.

Instead, take the opportunity to identify that they are essential in carrying the team forward. That the cuts you made were to preserve the opportunity for this team to succeed in the future. Assure them that you took the deepest cuts now so that you didn’t have to do it again in the future. Begin to rebuild their confidence with your own and let them see the path forward.

3. Create a distraction, but allow for space.

For employees, work can be a great distraction from the echo chamber of bad news during a crisis. Create structure and conduct frequent check-ins to keep people on task and focused on productive work. If successful, the workplace, even when virtual, can act as an escape from life outside of the business.

However, understand that every individual is processing the emotions of uncertainty in very different ways, that their unique personal life has suddenly become very intertwined with their workday, and that they are impacted by tragedies that you may not experience or vice versa.

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Check-in with individuals often and provide the support they need to feel comfortable and centered. If they need time off to focus on themselves or their family, encourage them to do so. When you suddenly lose the structure of time and space, burnout is a real threat.

Protect the employees you’ve deemed essential.

4. Give hope, but be real.

See the path forward and motivate your team to make that vision a reality. Set clear benchmarks and checkpoints built around your hypotheses of what the future holds while understanding the worst-case scenarios and how to foresee them occurring. Schedule more frequent team meetings and use it to maintain a sense of urgency and motivation.

In times like this, some leaders have a tendency to withhold information out of fear or in an attempt to protect their employees. On the contrary, information and honesty build confidence. In a world full of uncertainty, now is your chance to create clarity for your team. Allow your employees to take ownership, hold each other accountable, and see the role they play in the bigger picture. In doing so, they will also share in the responsibility of seeing the company through these tough times.

A strong and decisive leader that is empathetic and vulnerable is what a team needs most in a time of crisis.