During Unprecedented Times, Leaders Have a New Role to Play

Coronavirus (COVID-19) HR Management & Compliance information leadership

These are incredibly challenging times. The entire world has undertaken a massive shift in how we work—all at the same time and all because we have been forced to. We aren’t just working from home; we are at home in a crisis trying to work amid an avalanche of change and, in some cases, despair.


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The first priority of all businesses must be to keep their people safe and, second, to ensure the businesses survive and continuity ensues. So how can we simultaneously provide focus and enable our team to be productive?

As a leader, we need to think about how we show up in a crisis—for our team, for each employee, and for ourselves. We have to have our own plan, not someone else’s. Our role is to absorb fear, to acknowledge for others what is affecting us, and then to reorient people toward what is in our control and what we can work on in the present moment.

Your Most Important Job Is to Communicate

Uncertainty can be crippling. People today are paralyzed by fear, and they’re looking to their leaders for certainty and a plan. The challenge is how to deliver certainty when there is none. While we don’t know what the world will look like in 6 months’ time, we can communicate openly with our team, focus their attention, divide the problem into things we can tackle, and ensure no one gets left behind.

Taking control of the company narrative is critical for maintaining confidence in the company and its leadership. It’s important to mitigate the spread of misinformation and to ensure the cascade of information that comes from the business is clear and has a simple call to action.

People are receiving information from many sources right now, and much of it is conflicting. It is more important than ever to have visible, honest leadership.

At times like these, leaders must communicate  every day. It is literally the most important part of your job. You will be asked to make critical decisions, but it is how you explain and present those decisions that will create at least half of the value.

Our data at Culture Amp support the importance of communication. In our latest survey of more than 17,000 employees, we found that when leaders are making effective decisions, providing a sense of stability, and being accessible, response to the COVID-19 pandemic is favorable, with 95% of employees responding positively.

For CEOs of globally distributed companies, like Culture Amp, the challenge is amplified by geography and time. I am currently recording 2-minute daily videos for the company that align our focus and provide a more personal, human view on what we’re all facing. I’ve been blown away by how much the team values having that voice at this time.

While this format might not suit all leaders, you can think about what formats are most comfortable for you—Slack? E-mail? Video calls? A handwritten thank-you note? The important thing is to be “open by default,” which means communicating in places where it is easy for information to be accessed and shared for maximum visibility.

Be Vulnerable, Be Yourself, and Speak the Truth

One of the best ways you can maintain a connection with your team is by focusing on the unifying, humanizing aspects of the situation. Everyone is struggling. Perhaps someone thinks he or she is the only one who doesn’t have a desk, can’t get away from the kids, and is stressed out. It’s OK to admit you are, too. Sharing something personal makes you human. Sharing what you are focused on and how you’re navigating the situation and enabling others to succeed makes you a leader.

Have the courage to be vulnerable. How you show up—your tone of voice, your body language, your words, and your emotions—connects you to your audience. Sharing your vulnerability invites and builds their trust.

Remember that everyone has his or her own style. Take on people’s advice, but establish your own voice. If it doesn’t feel right, then say it differently. Focus on landing what you feel, not what someone told you to say. There might be times when you feel overwhelmed; it’s human—we all do at different times. Turn to your network of support, and share the load.

Speak the truth. We are in a crisis—people are not expecting you to have all the answers. People need reassurance, but they do not need false hope. They want to know that you have the courage to tell them what is really happening. Always finish with how we can get through the situation we are in, but do not mislead them about the reality. If you do not know, admit you do not know, and then share what you’re thinking.

Provide Context, and Take a Long-Term View

While you may not be able to provide answers, you can provide greater context. As a leader, you are in a perfect position to help people see the bigger picture. Share what you have seen that is good or promising—perhaps people haven’t had a chance to look up from their laptops to notice! Acknowledge the great work of your team—both on the front lines and behind the scenes—and shine a spotlight on it.

It is also extremely important to intentionally build upon your culture during these trying times. Think about the rituals and behaviors that punctuate the rhythm of working life in normal conditions, and find ways to adhere to them during times of crisis. They will bring a sense of normalcy and routine to the day.

In an era of physical distancing, at Culture Amp, we are leveraging a number of tools and sharing resources to create new rituals and opportunities to build culture and connection; from organizing a digital “aperitivo” at the end of the day to drop-in morning tea or lunch sessions, everyone is responsible for shaping culture and for how he or she shows up in this new culture. Allow your teams to own their emerging culture by showing them how they can contribute and lead.

The truly unique challenge we’re facing is that we as leaders need to lead with empathy and the strictest regard for our employees’ health and safety while keeping our businesses alive. Take advantage of outside resources, and keep a pulse on how your employees are feeling. As a leader, your role is to help the company make it to the other side of this crisis through constant communication, vigilant transparency, and a prescriptive long-term plan.

Didier Elzinga is the CEO and cofounder of Culture Amp, a culture-first employee feedback company. Launched in 2011, Culture Amp is a technology start-up and has helped companies around the world harness the power of employee feedback to drive positive change. Elzinga is growing Culture Amp into a culture-first company at scale, with offices in Melbourne, San Francisco, New York, and London.

Before starting Culture Amp, Elzinga was the CEO of Rising Sun Pictures, where he oversaw the production of visual effects for popular films such as The Lord of the Rings and The Last Samurai. Additionally, he was the founder of Rising Sun Research (winner of a Technical Academy Award) and a Non-Executive Director of Tourism Australia.

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