Real Leaders

A Crisis Is an Opportunity to Rethink the Way You Lead

Like many that have come before, this crisis can bring out the best and worst in leadership. I witnessed some of the best actions as a crisis responder after 9/11 and the California fires and realized that crises do indeed provide opportunities to change the way we do things.

This pandemic is illuminating inequalities, lack of vision, and support at every level. As a leader, it’s time to ask yourself what qualities in your organization will make everyone want to contribute their best ideas, help set records for achievement, and support each other in ways that lift the team, your products or services, and the greater economy. 

One way to do that is by exercising empathy. Before you discard it as just another “soft skill,” think about how empathy requires you to walk in someone else’s shoes to understand what they are facing, especially amid all this uncertainty. No one knows what the future may hold as people continue to get sick, millions are out of work, and others struggle to work in creative new ways. While we’re all walking through this time together, we need to understand our team’s needs, the challenges they may be facing, and look for ways to make their work easier. That means adopting empathy as the core of your management style and listening to your employees, so you can truly understand their perspectives and help them excel at their jobs. 

This crisis has blended work and home as never before. Both men and women face interruptions while working at home that cannot be ignored. COVID-19 has shone a light on how caretaking and work collide, especially when home-schooling is added to the mix. Boston Consulting Group’s recent study of working parents revealed that half of those surveyed felt their work suffered. Women estimated they spend 15 more hours a week on household chores. Both men and women estimate they are spending an extra 27 hours a week on childcare, chores, and education than they were before the pandemic. BCG authors offer several solutions while admitting that nothing is perfect during anxiety over layoffs and with children possibly not returning to classrooms full-time.

Given that 60 percent of parents have not found alternative childcare in the wake of school and daycare closures, flexible policies are needed. Some may not want to return to work full time. Men may feel social pressures to prioritize work, and women may feel the opposite pressure to quit and focus on home duties. With employee turnover costing 33 percent of an employee’s salary, BCG points out that it’s ultimately beneficial to keep the employee and “lead with empathy” to understand their situation. 

Another critical point is not to assume that employees working from home will be at their regular capacity or on their usual schedule. That means managers need to have open conversations about workloads and workflows, prioritize mission-critical tasks, and reallocate resources to create short-term flexibility. Reaching out to support others is the most rewarding act you can take in a crisis —
or anytime, for that matter.

I founded Women Connect4Good for that very reason: to help and support other women. It came about as the result of a podcast interview when I asked my guest, “Mary, how can I help you?” The silence was so long that I was afraid we had lost the connection. Finally, this small voice answered, “You mean you want to help me?” Yes. That’s exactly what I wanted to do. And I realized that the most powerful thing we can do for each other is to reach out and ask how we can help. That is empathy in action. And I made it the mission of my foundation. I have enlarged it to encompass men, too — everyone must help and support each other. My whole team knows it and works to achieve it.

My team was already working remotely, so we were lucky not to have to change the core of our working style. Recognizing that the greatest challenge in a physically distanced workforce is effective communication, each member thinks of the others and how they contribute. When something in their lives — not work-related — requires attention, the others step in to help. We keep each other in the loop, keep no secrets, and empower each other to achieve our common purpose. Likewise, when something happens to derail a plan, like the pandemic, the team is flexible and able to shift direction. For example, our Lift Women Up marketing campaign was in place months before the first case of COVID-19, but just when it was launched, everyone’s attention shifted. Women still needed lifting up — so we revised and adapted it to fit the circumstance and forged ahead with it. The complete collaboration, culture of trust, and authentic, honest communication make my organization agile and able to respond immediately to changing needs.

Great leadership starts with listening and understanding what everyone needs to excel at their jobs. Engaging empathy throughout your organization may require a shift in focus away from the bottom line to the talent that makes achieving that bottom line possible. By developing relationships that foster collaboration and performance beyond expectation, we can create an entirely new business environment that sustains everyone. Imagine a workplace that everyone wants to serve, and give their best effort and innovative ideas — at every level. When we choose to open our minds and hearts to engage empathy, we acquire more tools for strategies that transform our current business models and succeed in unforeseen ways.

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