Leadership in the Coronavirus Era

The Coronavirus (also known as COVID-19) truly defines uncertainty for every business and every person. No one can predict what’s going to happen, how long it’s going to last, or what the real impact will be.

What I know is right now the impact is significant and in many different ways. I’ve had hospitality clients lay off significant numbers of their employees. Many non-profits are closing down, and the ones that are open (because they’re an ‘essential business’ are navigating waters they’ve never navigated before.

Most families today are two-income families. With kids home, that means one parent has to take off work. And despite the increase in work from home, there’s not a lot a person can work on when they’re taking care of the kids.

The impact, of course, is not limited to business. We are all worried about our jobs, family, friends and associations.

This extraordinary time sees three related crises all at once. This isn’t just an economic crisis; it’s a health crisis, an economic crisis, and ultimately a crisis of the unknown: what will it look like when it’s over. And all three are of a scale never seen before.

As a leadership and workforce strategist, part of the strength I bring to the table is I’ve “been there/done that”.  I’ve either done it, witnessed it, or led it in my 30-year career. But nothing in our lifetimes compares to this.

There are extraordinary demands on leaders in every avenue.

So what is a leader to do? My guidance is – do what all leaders are supposed to do in normal times – and, do it on steroids.

My guidance is – do what all leaders are supposed to do in normal times – and, do it on steroids.

It’s all about communication

Even in the best of times, I’ve never seen an employee survey where the results said, “there’s too much communication.” Now is the time to over-communicate. Even if you don’t know the answer, communicate that. (Any response is better than no response at all.)

That means frequent one-to-group communication (e-mails, video conferencing, virtual coffees and happy hours).  It means saying “here’s what I know, and here’s when I’m going to get back to you”.

People are nervous. They need to hear from you.

And when there’s bad news, be upfront and immediate with it. Don’t hide bad news. I have a client with a very successful business in the hospitality industry. He realized early on that he was going to have to lay off employees (about half of his team). He realized that on the evening of Thursday, March 5 (well before the restaurants shutdowns and quarantines). He texted me early the next morning, I gave him my thoughts and potential strategies. By noon, he addressed all his employees, preparing them for bad news. On Monday, March 9, he gave the bad news to everyone. Nothing was sugarcoated or delayed. As soon as he knew, he made sure his employees knew.

You are always on stage.

Your people take their cues from you. If you are calm and thoughtful, you’ll put people more at ease. If you’re not, well, that’s an issue to.

Take a look at our leaders on a national stage. Who are we paying attention to? Which of them are making decisions, showing empathy, and are doing the right thing?

I’m not going to single any one politician out; I can do without the politically related comments at a time like this. But I would like to mention one person I’m listening to without fail: Dr. Anthony Fauci. We he speaks, I listen. He’s calm, cool, fact-based. He thinks before he acts and speaks. He’s tremendously knowledgeable and even though this pandemic is unprecedented, he acts like he’s been there. (And in a way he has: he’s advised every President since Ronald Reagan). In a nutshell: he’s acting the way a leader should act.

What You Do (and How You Do It) Is Critical

All you can do is your best. But make sure that – to the best of your ability, you create a sense of trust. Trust is a combination of communication and honesty. (That’s not so hard, but it’s hard to practice it every day). Trust also derives from your established values and ethics.

Always follow your values; your decisions will be much easier.

It’s all about Emotional Intelligence

What are your people thinking and feeling? What are their issues? Are you asking, do you understand (because you need to). This is even more important when employees are working remotely. People need to feel tethered to the organization they work for.

When you’re conducting video-based meetings, pay extra attention to non-verbal clues from your team. As much as possible, connect on an individual basis with those you work for and with you. Ask how they are (and mean it). Show compassion – but you can’t fake compassion if you don’t have it.

You Don’t Have the Luxury of Time

In these unchartered times, there’s nothing to fall back on. The adage that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert is still probably true, but we no longer have that much time.

So make sure to make decisions quickly – and be prepared to change your mind frequently. (This what we call leadership agility). You can second guess yourself all you want to in six months from now. But at this time – make change, enact change, but don’t get tied down to any decision you make.

And try and embrace everything and anything new! There has never been a better time to experiment – because we have to. I’d never participated in a Google hangout until 3 days ago. It can be done.

You Don’t Have All the Answers.

So make sure to ask your team what ideas they have to help during these turbulent times. It gives them a sense of ownership and helps them help you. And make sure to empower your leaders to lead – not everything need come to and through you. There will never be a better time to see who can step up than now. Adversity breeds success.

Be True to Yourself.

Remember who you are and don’t forget where you came from. You have established values, principles and ethics. If you haven’t done so already – write them down and review them every day. Intellectual curiosity – learn more, ask more questions, research and thus improve and become more valuable to those around you.

To My Employees re: Coronavirus

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I sent this e-mail to my team on Monday, March 9. My team consists of seven Human Resource Consultants who work with our clients as on- and off-site HR Managers, and five administrative/operations staff. The HR Consultants mostly work remotely; my admin team works in our office.

The Coronavirus issue has started to take over all of our lives, both personally and professionally. It’s consuming the way we make decisions as well as how we do what we do.

I’m obviously not an expert on this; I’ve probably read and seen as much information on the subject as you have; there’s little if any information regarding the virus itself that I can share with you that you haven’t already seen.

So in thinking about this and the way it impacts RSJ/Swenson and our clients, I’ve come up with some guidelines to follow.

  1. Use your best judgement at all times. In deciding whether or not to make a visit to a client, use your best judgement. If you’re not comfortable, don’t go. We’ll back you up on our end.
  2. Logistically, we’ll set each of you up with Zoom accounts. You can conduct meetings, calls, conferences either by zoom, by phone, or e-mail like always.
  3. If you primarily work in the office, my RSJ Partners and I are committed to making sure our environment is as safe as possible.
  4. If you’re sick, don’t come in to work. You can work from home. If you’re out of sick days, call Jamie. You won’t lose money because of it. I’d rather have you not come in than come in. Work from home is fine.

But…

I’m personally a lot more concerned about the business impact on our clients (and  than the virus itself.

This was brought home to me on Friday when a long-time client (that is really successful) called me asking for assistance on how to eliminate half of his employees. Seems that the banks have withdrawn credit because of fears that contracts will be cancelled.

There are many other clients that will be directly impacted as well. Our museum and private school clients are going to close for who knows how long. I’m hearing that restaurants will be impacted and many other industries as well. We have clients in import/export, financial services, and non-profits that could take a hit.

At a minimum, all businesses are now scared, and when they’re scared, they don’t make decisions. The first instinct is to downsize or buried heads in the sand. This happened in 2008-09.

Thus, the most important business decision we can make is to proactively reach out to each of our clients.

You are looked to as the Subject Matter Expert on how to deal with the workforce. Right now, we need to add as much value as we can. What we do is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. But we can only be perceived as necessary if we are constantly adding as much value as we can.

We’ll have a conference/video call next week to discuss particulars and share stories and anecdotes of how we’re helping our clients. Until then, please make sure you’re in touch with each and every client in a proactive (not reactive) way.

Thank you for all you do.

Eric

I’m A Boomer & I Like Avocado Toast

What is it about Millennials that drive every other generation crazy?

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Can it really be their love for avocado toast?  I mean, I know it’s a piece of bread with some avocado smeared on it that costs too much money.  On the other hand, it’s delicious, so what’s the big deal?

Whatever the reason, that generation has spawned a significant number of ‘consultants’ who are making ungodly amounts of money for telling us how to manage Millennials, how to kowtow to Millennials, and how they are so much different than the rest of us.

Eric’s Leadership Hint: don’t manage them differently, don’t kowtow to them, and don’t assume they’re so different from the rest of us.

And it’s likely those consultants are the same people a few years ago who warned us not to stereotype a whole lot of people; that we needed to focus on “one size fits one”.  So much for that philosophy…

First, let’s start debunking some rumors.  After a lot of studying millennials through the dozens of clients we have, I’ve come to the same conclusion that Mel Kleiman has:

Millennials want:

  1. Technology that helps them be more productive
  2. Professional development opportunities
  3. Collaboration (a.k.a. teamwork)
  4. Work/life balance
  5. Purpose
  6. To be happy

So how is what “they” want so different than what the rest of us want?  It’s not.  (They may want all of this with more urgency than the rest of us, but that’s not a major issue).

Last year, I gave a keynote speech in Hawaii to a bunch of banking executives.  I had been asked to touch on the millennial issue, but the main focus of my talk was how to integrate younger leaders into the leadership team.

Right before I went on, my wife came up to me and said the previous speakers talked non-stop about millennials and how to manage them and what to do – basically duplicating what I was going to say.  She told me that they even took selfies of themselves speaking to illustrate how important that was to millennials.

So when I got to the ‘millennial’ part of my talk, I stopped and looked at the audience.  And said, “Is anyone here as tired as I am of talking about millennials?”

Well, I should have stopped right there, because the bankers were coming out of their seats to applaud that statement.  I was thus inspired to take a selfie as well, indicating “Boomers Can Take Selfies Too”.

My attempt at taking a selfie while speaking to 200 executives.       March, 2019

(The result of the photo showed that I can take a selfie, just not very well).

My point is this.  We’re all tired of “How To Manage Generations” articles and consultants.  We’re tired because it’s not fair to stereotype an entire generation.  People are different within generations. There are millennials who don’t like avocado toast, and there are some millennials who (gasp) don’t like taking selfies.  Just as there are boomers who are entitled snobs who think everything should be handed to them on a platter.

You don’t manage generations.  You manage individuals.

The world is one size fits one, and those who manage people based on a stereotype of an entire generation are doomed to failure.

How I Learned To Delegate

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The best lesson I ever learned on delegation came in 1997.  I was running teams for AAA (the Automobile Club) in our Burbank and Glendale offices.  These teams were comprised of outside salespeople (who sold AAA memberships, auto & homeowner’s insurance) and inside salespeople, who handled existing policyholder issues by phone and walk-ins.

Our team was a really top-performing team – probably in the top 5 out of 100 in the company in terms of sales and volume.

But the single biggest frustration I had was on Fridays.  All the big member issues, complaints and problems somehow always hit on Friday afternoons.  Time and time again, I had to intervene and handle these major complaints, and it was sucking the life out of me.  Between dealing with an angry customer, trying to navigate the corporate bureaucracy to get resolutions to the problem, and bringing the issue to  completion was exhausting, to say the least.  On a day – Friday – where I should have been spending time congratulating my team for their accomplishments, I was on hold waiting to talk to an underwriter about why a car didn’t get properly added to Mr. Johnson’s automobile insurance policy.

My boss had a suggestion.  He reminded me the team was really successful, that he knew I was working hard, so he said, “next Friday at lunch – go to the beach and take the rest of the day off.”

That sort of thing never happened at AAA back then (or, as far as I know, even today).  We were supposed to be in our offices every day from 8-5.  And remember – this was 1997.  No one really had cell phones and e-mail was a couple of years away.  I loved the beach – still do – but I was freaking out.  Who would handle the complaints? How bad would my desk look when I returned to work on Monday?

But I was grasping at straws, so I agreed.  On Friday morning, I told two of my supervisors that I’d be out of the office that afternoon and unavailable.  And, I went down to the beach.

It was not a relaxing afternoon at the beach.  Actually, the entire weekend was not pleasant: I was determined not to go in to the office on Saturday or Sunday, but was dreading Monday morning.  How many voice mails and customer complaints would be waiting for me when I returned?

Turns out, there were no voice mails.  There were no unresolved customer complaints on my desk.  I was shocked.  Was it possible there were no complaints at all on Friday?  It couldn’t possibly be true!

And it wasn’t.  In checking with my supervisors, there were still plenty of problems.  But without me there, they simply solved the issues themselves.  Everything was taken care of.

That one afternoon off transformed my way of thinking about delegation.

  • When you as a leader are not available, your good employees will step up if you empower them. Leave the office and untether for a day.  See what happens.
  • You are not essential to the everyday operation of your team 24/7. (If you are, then you’re doing it wrong).
  • A great way to identify leaders is to find out who steps up when you’re not there.
  • The key to a Self-Managing Team is not delegation, it’s empowerment. Let them make decisions and take responsibility.

That afternoon off, more than 20 years ago, is analogous to a few days off without e-mail today.  If you do it properly, it can be done.  So do it!

I Turned Off From E-mail for 8 Days. Here’s What Happened.

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Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

I’ve been around long enough to have worked in the “pre e-mail” days – I remember vividly how excited my colleagues and I were when the company got a fax machine (“We won’t have to drive documents around to our clients anymore!”)

I clearly remember in 1997 sending my first e-mail.  Do you remember how excited we all were when we actually received an e-mail?  (“You’ve Got Mail!”).

But instead of increasing freedom, electronic communication has instead created a mentality of “I have to be connected at all times”.  Until the advent of e-mail, that didn’t happen.

In 1993, I took a one-month vacation by myself.  I flew to Chicago, then drove to Toronto, Montreal, and then spent time viewing fall foliage in New England, saw a few hockey games, drove back through Pennsylvania and Ohio, and flew home.  I didn’t have a cell phone; e-mail was several years away, and the internet was limited to a few college professors.  How did I ever survive taking a month off without checking in?

Today, I get about 750 e-mails each week.  Like you, I can become a slave to e-mail.  (A recent survey showed that the average employee spends about 25% of their time responding to and sending e-mails).

So in the course of a generation, we’ve gone from e-mail as a savior to e-mail as the bane of our existence.  In fact, it’s becoming somewhat of a status symbol to be able to walk away from Gmail or Outlook for a period of time.

Thus it’s a particular pleasure when I can untether for a week and not worry about them.  My wife and I recently took an 8 day trip to Italy, and I was determined not to check my e-mails.  But I knew I had to worry about client needs, employee issues, and the day-to-day detritus that’s part of being a business owner and entrepreneur.

What happened?

  1. I prepared.

Our trip was scheduled for October 12-20, 2019.  A week before vacation, I notified all of my key clients that I’d be out of the office for 8 days without access to e-mail.  This was their hint if they needed something from me, don’t wait for October 12 to inform me.  I also put the dates I’d be on vacation on my e-mail signature.

I met with each of my administrative team to review any outstanding issues they had, and built in time to meet with each of them after I returned.  My consulting team was handled the same way.

A couple of days before leaving, I talked with our receptionist to review “if this person calls, send them to this team member”.

Our Director of Operations has worked with me for nearly 10 years, and she has an excellent sense of what I need to know and what I don’t.  I was confident that if something really needed my attention, she’d let me know via text.

Note: having a reliable team is essential to success.  If you can’t trust your team when you’re gone, then you need a new team.

The final preparation? We decided to leave on a Saturday morning, which meant the first two days of vacation were days where there was little likelihood of having to worry about an urgent e-mail.

I didn’t trust myself.

Despite the preparations and my commitment, I didn’t completely trust myself.  So I had our IT expert completely disconnect my iPhone, iPad, and laptop from e-mail connectivity.  Even if I wanted to check, I couldn’t.  This might have been the scariest thing of all, but I was determined not to leave any excuse on the table.

I still went through withdrawals.

Despite the trust and preparation, I still worried.  We’re so conditioned to check e-mails so often that getting out of that routine isn’t easy.  I found myself wanting to check several times during the first few days.  But I couldn’t.  So I found myself focusing more on our vacation – where we were going and when we were there – getting more into the moment.

I returned on a Sunday and devoted some deep time to managing e-mail.

By previous arrangement, I arranged with our IT guru to ‘re-connect’ me on the Sunday we returned.  So we got home from the airport, unpacked, took a nap, then I took a very deep breath, and connected.

There were 670 emails in my in box. I ‘triaged’ them into 3 categories:

  • Newsletters & related e-mails. There were 78 of them.  It took me about 20 minutes to go through them.
  • “FYI” type e-mails – from my team, clients, business associates. There were 500 of them, and it took me another hour to review them.  Not one of them required a response or action from me.
  • Which left me with 38 “actionable” e-mails, which required a response or decision from me. 1 more hour.

I can’t emphasize how important this step is.  You need deep time – completely uninterrupted time – in order to clear your inbox.  If I had waited until Monday morning to do this, I’d still have a full inbox a month later, what with meetings, calls, interruptions, etc.  If you don’t have the ability to check your e-mails on weekends when returning from an email-less trip, then make sure to block the first 3 hours on the first day you return.

And…I was done.  That was it.  I went to work on Monday morning with an open and clear mind.  I survived without e-mail for 8 days.  It was a bit humbling (“I guess I’m not needed all of the time”) but ultimately freeing.

Did problems happen when I was gone?  Absolutely.  A brand new employee quit on her third day.  I didn’t find out until my return.  My Operations Director decided there was nothing I could do from Italy except stress out (and she was right).

Lessons?

  1. When you disconnect, your team will step up. (there’s a corollary with delegation).
  2. I’m not as essential to the every day operation as I thought I was.
  3. My clients, once they knew what I was doing, were completely supportive (and a little jealous). All it took was a bit of time to let them know what I was doing, and when.
  4. The feeling of going from stressful to freedom was really important, and created space in my brain to do what a vacation is intended to do – refresh and rejuvenate.
  5. I’ll be doing this on all our long vacations in the future.

To determine how important something is, walk away from it for 10 days.  Were you able to live without it?  Then it really wasn’t that important.

None of us are as important as we think we are.  The fact that we feel we have to check-in, check e-mails or texts just reinforces that ego.  Walking away is the component necessary to dissuade you of the “I’m indispensable” mode.

On Books: That Will Never Work

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“What If There Were No Late Fees?”

“What? You ask? Reed Hastings wasn’t the first CEO of Netflix?” (I didn’t know that either). It was the author, Marc Randolph. And his story of the birth of Netflix is interesting, compelling, and relatable even if you’re not interested in doing a start-up.
Lots of ups-and-downs from concept to execution which any entrepreneur understands; as a Workforce Strategist, of course I wanted to read much more about how Patty McCord impacted the company, but I can’t always get everything I want.
Yet there are lots of great stories and anecdotes.
Take the time Randoph and Hastings tried to sell Netflix to Blockbuster. They borrowed Vanna White’s jet (who knew) and offered Netflix for $50 million.
I wonder if Blockbuster might still be in business if they took the offer.