Covid-19 has affected not just our lives but our livelihoods, too. No industries, businesses or communities have been left untouched. And it’s exhausting. In this article I look at ‘action ready strategies’ to help manage and lead in times of imposed and, with Covid-19, unprecedented change.

There’s a big difference between managing and leading in times of change that we choose to adopt — new markets or products, mergers or acquisitions, growth and expansion — and change that happens to us. This pandemic happened to us all. What happens now is up to us.

How can leaders find the energy, the drive, and the motivation to inspire those around them? What can they do differently or more of?

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of the Leadership Challenge define leadership as “The art of mobilizing others to want to struggle to achieve shared aspirations.” Those four words “to want to struggle” is the challenge. In times of imposed and unwanted change we have to encourage a new spirit, an energy to want to take on that struggle.

Being Resilient

When unexpected change happens to us, our resilience is tested. We have to dig deep when we are, ourselves, already battle weary. In an excellent and very moving TEDX talk Dr. Lucy Hone (pictured above) identifies three factors to help our resilience. Firstly, she says that stuff happens and we need to accept it — that’s life. Secondly, choose where you focus your attention and thirdly, look at what you’re doing. Is how you’re responding to what happened helping or harming? if it’s harming, then stop.

Know Yourself

Leaders have to stand for something, and their people need to know what that ‘something’ is. In times of change, that’s even more important. Whether you call them your values, your beliefs, your purpose — they need to be defined, articulated, shared and talked about. What makes you, you? When you’ve had to make difficult decisions, what values guided your actions? When someone acted or behaved in a way that crossed one of your core beliefs (you’ll know because you were angry), why did that upset you? What inner factor did that highlight as important to you? Revisiting your values and being clear on what you stand for, what really matters to you, will energize you and give you clarity on where to focus your attention. And not just you — those around you. Talk about what matters to you, share and explain why. A good test is whether the people you manage and lead can say what you stand for and why.

Create a Culture of Problem Solving

Leaders push the boundaries, challenge the status quo and put problem solving at the top of their to do list. No one has the answers for leading the change in this pandemic but those who can create teams that are agile, that can quickly prototype ideas, fail fast and learn from that, will come out stronger. Leaders need to experiment, encourage risk taking, knowing that some things will work and some won’t. But their followers need something more if they are ‘to want to struggle’. They need to know that they can experiment in a relatively safe environment. Great leaders have to create a culture and context where failure is possible, where people know that mistakes are inevitable but that they give us opportunities to learn and grow stronger. When finances are stretched and markets are unstable, that’s hard to do.

When working with leadership teams in hospitals, they often tell me ‘We can’t take risks with peoples’ lives’ until I point out that they’re taking a risk every day, but with protocols in place to minimize those risks.

Focus on small changes, projects with run times of 30 or at most 60 days. When people solve a problem, it’s highly motivating. They feel good. They feel energized. And don’t forget to give the credit, too — celebrate and move onto the next challenge. Keep that momentum.

Look at creating ‘trailblazer’ or ‘pioneer’ teams, encourage people to look outside of their own sector and see what others are doing. A very senior procurement leader once told me “Always look at the packaging industry Izzy. That’s where you see innovation.” He sends his buyers out to look at other industries, at what they’re doing and then uses those ideas to challenge the process in his organization.

Skill People for Change

There’s a difference between knowledge and ability. I know how to play tennis (knowledge) — I’m just a bit rubbish at it (ability). If we’re asking our people to work differently, to change how they work, then invest in training and support to help them. Telling people what to do won’t crack it, they need to know how. And yet, during tough times that’s often the first thing to get cut.

Dan Pink (Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us) shows that mastery is a great motivator. When we get good at doing something, we feel better. If we equip our teams to levels of mastery, help them to get better at what they do through coaching and training, they’re motivated to go on and tackle more.

Maybe that’s not really surprising after all.