By: Rachel Vandenberg
I haven’t wanted to call this a crisis. Challenging times, turbulent…maybe. On Monday March 9th I had barely cracked opened my computer, as I began to realize that it was no longer in my hands. On that day the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Vermont. After that moment it has been a constant flood of information, changing circumstances fired at me from every direction at rapid speed. As an owner of a business and a board member of another organization, the weight of responsibility has been overwhelming. I know that I’m not alone in this feeling.
This is new territory for many of us and we can only rely on our skills and experience from before while rapidly developing new ones in the present. Over the last twelve-odd days, there are number of leadership practices that I have discovered are especially critical during times of crisis like this. These are not new concepts, but perhaps shared in this in context, it will provide insights.
I’m not going to lie. When this all started, I was not practicing anything like resilience. I didn’t want to face what was coming, nor could I believe what was happening. When it sunk in, there was only dread and despair at that moment. Then I realized that people were counting on me and looking to me to set the example of strength and yes, resilience.
At the start of a crisis, practicing resilience precedes everything else. It means fighting the urge to retreat and picking up the pieces and work to find solutions while staying positive and focused.
As more and more people started talking about COVID-19 and the sickness was quickly spreading, the panic was also spreading. After an interaction with someone who was expressing a lot of concern and emotion about the developments, I notice the changing tone of their voice and their facial expression. As a result, I could feel my own heart rate increasing. I became very quickly aware of the role I had to play in practicing emotional control and providing an example for the people around me.
One of the strategies I have used to do this is providing factual information to my staff. When I speak to people, I try my best to stay focused in the moment and not exaggerate or project dooms day scenarios, while at the same time balancing this out with the recognition of the seriousness and reality of our circumstances.
If you would have asked me just seven days ago if I thought I would have closed down both parts of our business and I would be sitting in an empty hotel with no employees, I would have asked you what planet you come from. And yet, that’s exactly our current situation.
As our business levels have exponentially decreased to zero, revenues have disappeared and expenses keep rolling in, I have had to practice bravery like never before. I’ve had to be brave and make those decisions I never imagined including cutting off services, shutting down operations and laying off nearly my entire staff. At this point, practicing bravery is just getting out of bed in the morning because I’m not sure what I will be facing in the next minutes let alone hours.
Oh, and then you think you’ve made one of the bravest decisions of your career and just hours later you have to make an even harder decision.
I am not a good decision maker. I will delay, procrastinate, especially on the topics I feel most insecure about. When I’m finally ready it is because I’ve finally had the head space and time to get the information I need to formulate a decision. Enter COVID-19: Time, forget it. Head space…. Pfff, yeah right. Try making decisions when the information is changing by the hour, no the day and even sometimes by the minute. I’ve had moments when I was discussing next steps on how/if/when to close our business and had just formulated a plan, when an email came in my mailbox and I had to make a more immediate plan for closure. And then there is the issue of making decisions based on incomplete, contradictory and unclear information. Add on top of that, extreme emotional pressure, stress, exhaustion and homeschooling three children under 10.
I’ve had to become very comfortable in a very short-term period with practicing “the pivot”. In crisis periods decisions must be made with the information you have and delivered with the most confidence possibly. Then you must communicate it quickly and thoroughly as possible. Then you prepare yourself. New information comes in and most likely something major has changed and requires a completely different course of action or direction – that’s the pivot.
Diligent and Frequent Communication
It’s hard to say that anyone of these practices is more important than any other during a time of crisis. However, diligent and frequent communication must be central to any crisis response. We’ve seen throughout this crisis how incorrect, biased, incomplete, or slow communication has made the COVID-19 outbreak worse.
Over the last few years communication has been at the forefront of my strengths in leadership and it is the one practice that I feel most confident about. Even then, I feel I could be better at it and do it more frequently and in the right sequence. It has been a priority for me because I’ve seen how it has improved the employee experience at my business and subsequently the customer experience.
During this crisis, communication to my staff has been my top priority. I have delayed communication to even my customers in favor of connecting with my staff first. This is because I knew if they did not feel safe, secure and informed, we would never be able to serve our customer. I have spent hours thinking about detailed content, clarity, language, timing and overall messaging to be sure that I could do it as well as possible. I know communication is driving my ability to come out of this as successful as possible.
This has been a tremendously difficult time for me when it comes to self-care. I normally get outside a lot and exercise at least three to four times per week. This has been a fundamental component in my ability to grow and sustain in my business and leadership roles. In this current work/life climate I have not been able to keep that up but I have still made time for a couple of outdoor sessions. If you come close to that breaking point, like I have this week, making self-care a priority is the only way to get out of it. This includes sleep, healthy food and exercise (preferably outside). Let’s all make a commitment to make this happen.
It’s nearly unfathomable to think about what’s next. I’m certainly not going to pretend that I’m there yet. Especially since we don’t currently know how long we will be required to stay at home and keep our businesses shut down or at extremely low operations. It’s the practice of visioning though, that will give us hope and purpose. This crisis will pass, even if we don’t know when. We must be ready for that day. We must also create a vision that accounts for what has and will change.
Nothing will be the same when this is over. Join me in activating these seven leadership practices and we will get through this and we will be able to move forward.