Leading from the screen

—Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin have written a special edition of their Sink or Swim column for The Message. This highly practical advice about managing employees remotely at a high-stress time has been inspired by some of their own recent coaching conversations.—

Panic is contagious. So is calm. First and foremost, project calm on that little screen. You don’t need to be perfect in a global pandemic, when being your most authentic, human self is what’s called for. But when you speak with your people, take special note of what your tone and body language project.

Assume your team is scared. Stressed. Many are trying to cope with layers of challenge. Meet them where they are now, not where you wish they were (coping well). Show you care about each team member. Have conversations with people you’re especially concerned about. “How are you? How can I help?” will go a very long way. Ask and they will tell you. Knowing what’s really going on can help you shape the best strategies for support and collaboration.

Transparency is more important right now than ever. In a world where “What’s going on?!” is on everyone’s mind, be as forthcoming as possible. Remember that people fill in blanks with negatives. When your people feel they are informed it will help ground them. Answer their questions as honestly as you know how.

Aspire to build a stronger team and culture than ever. How do you make your team feel even more like a team when face time isn’t an option? Consider steps like organizing regular meetings designed for mutual support, where the only agenda is to listen to one another about what they’re going through.

Shoot high when everyone could be forgiven for shooting low. How might the enormous restrictions they’re living with as employees lead to new heights of creativity? We can already see resourcefulness, novelty and brilliance being born of restraint.

Be clear around your goals for, and expectations of, each team member. When people feel fearful, cognitive levels drop. Spell things out more than before.

Turn to peers for support you need. Leadership can be lonely at the best of times, but a lofty title doesn’t mean you’re on your own. Share your challenges with others you trust to help you cope and come to good decisions as you navigate uncharted territory. Your support of them would be welcomed, too.

Here are some strategies and ideas companies are trying right now. Maybe you’re already doing some of them, maybe something here will spark more ideas for how to guide your ship through these turbulent waters.

Some companies we’ve talked to are finding WFH easier and more productive than anyone had expected. Two weeks ago, one started doing all-hands meetings via Zoom on Monday mornings to start the week with a sense of normalcy. These gatherings begin with people pairing up for the first 20 minutes or so in Zoom breakout rooms, so people can just talk about what’s going on, how they’re doing, and check in with each other in a deeper way.

The plan is to change the pairs every week, introducing relative strangers to create new bonds within the company. The remaining 30 to 45 minutes is for leadership to share the state of the nation, hear people out and do an AMA. Given that the world seems to change hourly, a weekly check-in doesn’t seem like overkill.

It’s only been two weeks, but they say so far so good. People are attending, sharing, connecting with each other in a more focused and open way than they typically have time for. Leaders are bringing their A-game to the get-togethers, demonstrating thoughtfulness and calm, giving people some grounding for the week. They told us they plan to take these same practices back into the real world, because it’s already creating a greater sense of community and transparency within the company.

  • Other smart ideas: limiting business meetings (rather than health check meetings) to 20 to 30 minutes, keeping the groups small recognizing that it’s hard to be online with lots of people for an extended period. They’re opting for more small group meetings over one big one. Making sure there’s a very clear agenda, and that everyone gets the conch—which is easier to do when people can’t talk over each other so easily. (A godsend for the introverts in the group.)
  • One large marketing company is bringing in a guest “sane-maker” once a week to help people cope: a psychologist, a meditation teacher, an acting teacher, to help people manage their stress and anxiety. The team attends online. Some of the sessions work better with fewer participants, so those are offered multiple times.
  • It’s easy for coronavirus to become the focus of every meeting and conversation, but it’s also a chance to think big, innovate and invent; distance from the day-to-day brings new perspective. What challenges is your company facing (putting the pandemic to one side)? Can small groups work on solutions? Are there new products or services that you could develop? Can you reinvent how you pitch business? Talk about a system that needs some rethinking. Is there something new you could do for your clients? People need reassurance at a time when there’s so much confusion and no new normal in sight, but they also need relief, and problem-solving can be a good escape from anxiety.
  • There are all kinds of online supports popping up in social media feeds. This one, a free Ideo creative collaboration podcast (live on March 26) seems especially appealing for leaders and anyone who thinks like one.

Imagine. Months from now, you could be known for the creativity you inspired in the worst of times, and employees coping exceptionally well. For the business you kept and won when you turned restraint into a demonstration of just how exceptional your team is.

Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk are the co-founders of Swim, a “creative leadership lab” that supports the success of leaders at every level around the globe. They were co-chief creative officers of Ogilvy Toronto (1998-2012).

Swim is offering free small group Zoom sessions for leaders looking for ideas and support. Contact nancy@swimprogram.ca for more information.





David Brown