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Leading during times of change and uncertainty: 5 Step Guide to Empower in 2020

In my line of work, change is pretty much the only constant. My world is a great big roller coaster ride of unparalleled excitement one minute, which can be punctured by more sobering realities the next, all of which are experienced at break-neck speeds with little to no time to recoup. I firmly believe it takes a special type of person to thrive mentally as a consultant. That’s one of the main reasons I think consultants have been so well-equipped to pivot and handle the rigors of operating within a global pandemic. Of course, it’s not always perfect. Not by a long shot. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that everyone’s situation is inherently different. Quite frankly, some just have it harder than others and not only professionally. With all that said, in typical consultant fashion, I’ve assembled a 5-step guide to empower yourself or others during times of change and uncertainty.

Before we get started, some context might be worthwhile. So, let’s take a step back. I, like everyone in the world (literally), watched on in disbelief as the COVID-19 crisis initially unfolded. Uncertainty had reached extreme levels within my firm. Little by little our global offices began to shut down, traveling ground to a halt, and our people were relegated to working from their homes. Clients were disrupted. Personal lives were flipped upside-down. Tension was in the air.

Looking back, I’m quite impressed with how my organization offered up leadership from the top of the house. It empowered us to do the same for our respective lines of business. While balancing the rigors of remote work and family life, it inspired me to look outwards to see how other organizations were navigating these choppy waters. As expected, there was a lot of nuance across larger industries and even more so across small to mid-sized organizations.

Interestingly, there were some commonalities for those that optically seemed to handle things better than others. After distilling my findings, it appeared clear to me that the list wasn’t only applicable to how one manages through a pandemic. In fact, it felt and still feels like a universally applicable approach to handling times of uncertainty. The list may not be exhaustive, but I do think it’s an effective lens to look through at a macro-level.

  1. INFORM

The adage of “knowledge being power” is at the heart of our first step. Information is especially vital during difficult periods of uncertainty. People need clarity, regardless of chaos. I know it’s natural to want to process information thoroughly BEFORE relaying well-articulated thoughts, but speed is equally important. Of course, context matters, but sharing what you know as frequently as you can when people need it most is a sign of mutual respect. You may not yet have all the information at your disposal, but you’re also not shying away from what everyone is collectively thinking. Lean into engaging with your people. They’ll appreciate it, even if they don’t overtly express the emotion. Over time, they’ll grow to value the connectivity.

As a contributor, demand whatever information can be shared, especially in times of turmoil. Be understanding of the big picture at play, but don’t accept, “we don’t know anything” for any significant period. Connectivity is a two-way street between employer (or owner) and employee. Never take it for granted on either side. In the case of this pandemic, we had weekly video and written communications with everything that was known and understood. From there, I would reiterate the messaging and add my own personal touch wherever I could with my own teams. This brings us to our next step…Empathize.

2.     EMPATHIZE

Empathy in the context of work has evolved greatly over the years. It wasn’t that long ago when it was almost viewed as a weakness or impediment to get ahead. Now, it’s virtually a prerequisite for most people looking to land a new gig. Why anyone would want to work somewhere that can’t appreciate them for who they fully are is beyond me. We all have our challenges and personal obligations. Ignoring that part of someone’s story means you’re not acknowledging what makes them human. That’s right, your employees and/or leadership are not machines designed to serve your every whim. This is precisely why empathy is at the heart of this step.

As part of the prior INFORM step it should also be grounded in a level of humility that acknowledges the unique hardship that each person may be facing. Truth be told, people experiencing stress have a tendency to react in fairly predictable ways: lack of focus, decreased productivity, reduced connectivity, emotional outbursts, heightened conflict and competition amongst peers, increase in work silo mentality, rumor mill generator, frequent sick days or difficult to get a hold of, and many more that I’m sure you can think of. With that perspective in mind, it’s imperative to connect and empathize with your teams in a real way.

During true times of change, the more personal the connection the better. For a large organization, at the top of the house, explicitly state your concern for the well-being of your people. Offer resources to help them wherever you can. Most importantly…BE GENUINE. Putting on a performance that you care when your words and/or body language say otherwise is a recipe for disaster. It’s a sure-fire way to have employees recognize the lack of empathy. Instead, they’ll begin to wonder if there’s a lack of leadership currently in place. Don’t add complexity to an already difficult situation. Authentically care or move aside for someone else who does.

At the grassroots level, pick up the phone, send a text, video chat, whatever you need to do in order to show that person you care about THEM and want to understand how you might be able to help their situation. Listening, caring, and offering flexibility wherever possible can go a long way in turning around a struggling team member’s mindset.

3.      UNIFY

Understanding how best to get out of a bad business situation obviously varies across the board. There’s no silver bullet cure to survive or thrive in a capitalistic society. The one part of this equation that doesn’t vary is the need to devise a plan to rally through difficult times. Assuming the right leadership have gotten their heads together, this plan needs to tick all the right fundamentals and be done so with a sense of urgency. Clarity of vision and realistic goals, values, urgency, etc. There’s no shortage of research on this subject, so I’ll leave the soundness checklist to others. The important takeaway in this step is to unify the PEOPLE that underpin your business with a plan. A plan they can easily wrap their minds around. Just as important, the plan must inspire. This brings me to our next step…Energize.

4.      ENERGIZE

The perfect plan rarely embodies a sure thing. In fact, plans that are not embraced by the very teams needed to mobilize them are destined to fail. The only question is how fast they crash and burn. The importance of HOW a plan is mobilized cannot be understated. It should be multifaceted and thoughtful, but most importantly, it should inspire.

It’s not WHAT she said, but HOW she said it. Sound familiar? The space between UNDERSTANDING a concept and being FIRED UP to support one is miles apart. Delivery is key when rallying support for your plan, and should be focused on accomplishing three objectives:

  • THE VISION IS CLEAR – The vision is a culmination of the plan that everyone can connect with. Remember, you can’t energize without first understanding the unifying plan. The combination of the overarching strategy and the tactical execution should meld together seamlessly and be stated with confidence.
  • THE PASSION IS FELT – A natural extension of confidence is passion. As a leader, you SHOULD believe in the plan you’re preaching. This is true at all levels. As such, letting your passion shine through in your messaging is critical. It’s hard to fake passion, and people can instantly sense it, so posers beware. Make people FEEL the joy of the opportunity you see, even though others may not be there just yet. Finally, always punctuate the upside. Very often, during times of adversity, there are opportunities to pivot in such a way that can make an organization stronger.
  • THE PITCH IS EASILY REPEATABLE – Energizing your base is not a one-time event. The clarity and simplicity of the pitch is important as you’ll need to repeat it often. This is especially true for larger organizations. Delegate to leaders that you trust will carry the message forward to other lines of business or teams. Another reason for an easily repeatable pitch is that you want your people to own it. The simpler the story, the easier it is for others to advocate for the cause.

5.      OPERATIONALIZE

When it’s time to operationalize, it’s all about the fundamental blocking and tackling to execute on the plan. At this point, people fully understand what’s happened, comprehend the broader impact on the organization, and have clarity of the path forward; now it’s time to make it happen. Ideas are great, plans are important, but nothing matters unless it gets done. Formal ownership must be assigned to clearly explain roles & responsibilities. From there, monitoring progress is essential to validate that the committed plan is incrementally executed upon. Challenges always arise along the way, so be prepared to adjust on the fly. But remember to never lose sight of the big picture. Continue to put humans at center and offer them constant encouragement. They matter most. Celebrate the small wins along the way and offer solidarity when new unforeseen challenges arise. Trust the plan. Trust your people. Just keep moving forward. When you finally do breach the figurative mountain top, ask everyone to pause and reflect. A difficult journey can often form strong bonds that are never forgotten. Relish in the achievement. Thank all those around you that made it possible. Continue to look after your people because the next mountain isn’t far away.

At EY, employees often talk about their “WHY”. The concept was made famous by Simon Sinek several years ago, but I think we’ve put our own spin on it along the way. Your WHY generally has nothing to do with what you do as a professional or even how you do it. It’s really a compendium of personal stories, visceral emotions, and significant life events. It’s what makes you “YOU”! As terrible as times of uncertainly can be, there is always an opportunity to contribute to someone’s WHY in a positive way. You are fully empowered to do that, so I implore you to always make that your default position, no matter how difficult the environment may be. The pressures of a bad situation don’t give you license to willingly hurt another person’s WHY. Cruelness aside, it’s collectively short-sighted and irresponsible. Further, you’re better than that. You know how I know that? I know this because we’re all human at our core and we all want the very same things.

Enjoy the ride. We’re all in it together…

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