The COVID-19 crisis has spawned a deluge of counsel from consultants and academics to double down on empathy, be transparent and overcommunicate in order to lead your company through change. This advice is sage but delivered on a false thesis.
Unlike a crisis such as COVID-19—which we will eventually get through—there is no other side when it comes to change and uncertainty. Change is constant, and certainty is fleeting.
In business, change doesn’t have a beginning, middle and end anymore (if it ever did). Every company is in a continuous cycle of change and adaptation. Leaders don’t need a set of guidelines they will put back on the shelf until the next crisis appears. If you’re leading mindfully, the leadership tools you sharpen every day during this crisis can create the foundation for you to thrive as a leader in this “normal” world of constant change.
What Is a Change Leader?
Executives or managers who don’t think they are change leaders are fooling themselves and ignoring the most important part of their jobs. To stay afloat during periods of intense change (and even thrive in it), executives and managers must become change leaders.
Change leaders accept disruption and view the change it brings as an essential part of staying relevant, fresh and creative. After leaders adopt this mindset in their day-to-day lives, they must work to instill the same mindset across their entire company.
Thankfully, anyone can make these four moves to begin the transformation toward becoming a resilient, change-ready leader—even now:
1. Remove attachments to the past and present.
I have always said that it is easier to envision the future than let go of the past. Attachment to the past—and the present—is a real human trait. But as difficult as it is, letting go of that attachment is necessary to see the current situation clearly.
In order to identify the best solutions, you must first recognize the assumptions, norms and mindsets of the past; acknowledge how they have served you; and consciously and collectively let them go. Holding on to these in times of constant change encourages tunnel vision and enlarges your blind spots, which could mean dire consequences for your business.
I know that for myself, I have to go through a process of acknowledging how a habit or action served me in the past but is no longer relevant in the present. I honor it and let it go.
Earlier in my career, for instance, I took on a very large and strategic initiative, and the scope of my responsibilities quadrupled overnight. I had always prided myself on being a very engaged and hands-on manager, but I now had to admit that my way of leading would no longer work and had to reinvent my mindset, habits and actions when it came to leadership. This process wasn’t easy: I tried many alternatives, tested and learned new actions, and let go of attachments I wasn’t even conscious of.
Companies aren’t any different. Although your company’s road map might have been valid yesterday, there is no guarantee it will lead to success tomorrow. You need to expect circumstances to change and prepare yourself and your teams to react accordingly.
The research tells us that leaders who anticipate the future—even when that future is uncertain—do better in the long run. So how do you prepare yourself and your teams?
You can start by collaborating on a journey map of how your company got to the present point. Simply ask your team to look back over a set period of time and have people identify a high point (the accomplishment, pivot or result they are personally very proud of) and a low point (the event, circumstances or result that taught them the most). Tell these stories in a single journey map and identify what to let go and what to leverage from the past to move forward into the future.
2. Be inclusive and decisive.
Urgency often necessitates quick decision-making and decisive behaviors from leaders. In times of crisis, there can be a tendency to make important decisions alone or in small groups. This seems like the quickest option, but it’s the wrong move in an environment changing as rapidly as ours is now and where no one person can have the right perspective and all the necessary information.
Because change cannot be forced or micromanaged into a company, the only logical alternative is to be inclusive at scale. Not everything is up for debate: Your overall direction is generally set (this is the “what”), and the actions to implement (the “how”) need significant input. By involving more people in the process, you gain atypical perspectives, unique information and uncommon insights that will help you form a more innovative and forward-thinking solution.
There are countless ways to solicit ideas and feedback from your team, ranging from group brainstorming sessions to one-on-one meetings and even online surveys. You can start gathering your team’s ideas by creating a shared view of the current threats, conditions, opportunities and strengths that are advantageous in the current circumstances. The key is exploring various points of view together to gain a common view.
As an example, one of my consulting firm’s clients recently merged with another company and needed to create a new vision statement and describe its culture. To gather ideas and ensure people had a chance to make their mark, we organized several virtual focus groups with employees from four different continents in one week.
When diverse groups can thoroughly discuss and debate options for action, all parties are more likely to unite around the ultimate decision—even if it’s not their preferred outcome. Encouraging genuine inclusion from the start promotes commitment.
3. Work with your team to consider alternative vision-oriented directions.
Again, the future is impossible to predict, and change is guaranteed—but mapping out various ways to achieve your company’s overarching vision is certainly possible. In fact, it’s a great exercise that aligns employees with your mission.
To do this, identify at least three strategic directions that take distinct routes toward achieving your company’s vision. Work together and describe these directions in enough detail to make them feel real. Additionally, remember to pay attention to the assumptions, norms or mindsets of the past that should be let go of. Really lean in to imagine that each direction could be the way you move forward. This exploration will inform the choice that emerges. You can then map out a single direction that is the right one for your company now.
At one of our software clients, the senior team members were in complete alignment that they had to grow. The lack of alignment, however, was on how to grow. We mapped out three alternative directions for the future as a starting point. During a senior leader off-site gathering, we organized them into small groups so each could explore a single direction.
Their job was to figure out how to make that direction work—as if it was the chosen direction. This required some people to think through a direction that was not their original idea. Some even had to argue for something they were initially opposed to. After understanding the directions and all the arguments for and against each of them, they could align with a single direction and, to their surprise, let go of the direction they favored at the beginning of the meeting.
4. Demonstrate emotional balance. (In other words, be human.)
At this moment, people are living with high levels of threat. These can be real or perceived, and they can also be emotional or physical. Pretending that the current level of uncertainty and ambiguity does not affect you—or them—is unsustainable. Provide the right type of encouragement and never use fear as a motivator. Instead, help employees discover positive reasons to adapt to change.
For example, one of our clients distributes medical supplies, and never has that work seemed so critical and purposeful. The changes this company is initiating are in support of that heroic purpose, which means they’re also positive motivators. Not all companies have such a strong link to the current crisis, but all companies can find a positive reason for change (rather than simply changing to stave off failure).
At the same time, be sure to balance your optimism with realism. An overly optimistic leader can seem out of touch with reality and can lose the confidence of his or her team. Acknowledge the high levels of stress and risk that can accompany change while sending the message that everyone will figure this out together.
You do this by investing in your employees and showing them that they’re part of the solution. Check in often, inquire about how they’re doing, and take note of the answer. You might not be able to address every issue or concern, but you will gain a much better understanding of their realities and needs.
With practice, you can reframe change from a threat to another condition of life. You can train yourself to see the opportunities and possible trends in times of change; in fact, seeing opportunities where you used to see threats is calming (and even energizing). You can lead your teams in this practice as well.
A question I often ask myself is: What is it time to work on now? Now is the time to look at how you prepare for—and respond to—these ever present business conditions. Acknowledge your mindset and shift it as you navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Remember that your company will get through this crisis and that it will always face change. The shifts your company experiences today will result in more changes and new uncertainties down the road. With practice, you will see those changes as opportunities.
Although it’s impossible to predict the future, being prepared for inevitable change is essential. Adapting to that change requires a muscle that grows stronger with use. Over time, you and your team can learn how to feel energized by uncertainty and leverage it to encourage innovation.
Read next: How to Lead in a Crisis
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