Creating an environment for solving difficult challenges is a prerequisite for effective leadership. Occasionally, the challenges may be positive and fun to address, such as how to best take advantage of a new market opportunity.
However, anyone in a position of leadership will face adversity sooner or later. While I would not characterize problem-solving in the face of adversity as “fun,” it is nevertheless rewarding, perhaps even more so, as the stakes are often very high.
The challenges of 2020 have taught me a great deal about leading through adversity. When faced with a major challenge, there is typically no playbook for responding to the issues that spring up with little notice. That has been especially true this past year. You have to trust your instincts and make the best decisions you can, and then be willing to learn from your mistakes and course correct, as necessary.
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned and the guiding principles I used to effectively lead my team through difficult times, and which may prove useful for you.
Communicate Early and Often
Since the beginning of the pandemic, even before the economy was shut down, Clark Nuber’s leadership team used all the tools at our disposal to communicate often with our entire team. Early on, we conducted All-Firm “Update” meetings via Zoom roughly every three weeks. These have continued monthly as we settled into the ongoing reality of remote work. Prior to each meeting, we encourage people to post their questions to an anonymous survey, and I try to answer those questions live during the meeting, even if sometimes the answer is, “I don’t know yet.”
The philosophy of communicating early and often has been adopted throughout the firm. All department and team leaders have been proactive in meeting with their teams regularly and holding open conversations about the challenges of remote work and the impact of the pandemic on our daily lives. Human Resources has also sent regular updates via email, highlighting the resources that are available to all employees – everything from health care and mental health resources, to fun events to keep people connected.
In the end, everyone in the firm has played a role in maintaining open lines of communication, even though we are not in the same physical space.
Take Care of Your People
In 2008, at the beginning of the Great Recession, Clark Nuber made the decision to do everything in our power to preserve our work force, protect our team, and invest in their development, despite significant economic pressure. This later proved to be a very wise decision as the economy improved, and we were able to immediately take advantage of new opportunities.
In 2020, we doubled down on this commitment, and we have continued to invest in the welfare and development of our team. However, there is one big difference between 2008 and 2020. This time, we must also do all we can to ensure the health and safety of our people.
Even though our office is open to employees now, the vast majority of our team continues to work from home, and we have done everything we can think of to encourage and facilitate remote work. In the office, we meet or exceed state and CDC guidelines for keeping people safe. And, we have encouraged open dialogue about the challenges we face – especially when it comes to remote learning for parents with kids in school, and the impact social isolation can have on the mental health of so many of us.
Keep Your Eye on the Ball
In Jim Collins’ book “Great by Choice,” he discusses the concept of the “20 Mile March” as a way to exert a sense of control in a world that is out of control. The idea is that it is important to make decisions and take actions that allow you to maintain consistent progress toward your long-term vision, no matter what is happening in the world or in your industry.
This can be hard to do during difficult times when it might be easier to say, “We’ll get back to working toward our vision when things have settled down.” However, that’s when it is most important to stay focused on your long-term goals and to move toward them with a continuing sense of urgency.
Stay True to Your Core Values
“Clark Nuber is dedicated to the success of our people and our clients.”
This is our purpose – our “Why” – and as an organization, we have worked especially hard to live up to our purpose this past year, and to truly help our clients, our team, and our community.
Culture can be fragile, and even a positive culture can be difficult to maintain in the face of adversity. However, a strong culture will also provide the foundation for an organization to survive and thrive. I have said recently that 2020 has shown who we are and what we’re made of, and I am very proud of how our team has responded.
Be Realistic…and Optimistic.
Another Collins book, “Good to Great,” posits that a company cannot be truly great unless its leaders are willing to “confront the brutal facts” of any difficult situation, while maintaining an unwavering faith that they can and will prevail in the end.
In this context, optimism isn’t a Pollyanna expectation that the current challenge will simply fade away. Rather, it is about having the faith to expect that your team has the discipline and creativity to overcome any roadblock to achieve the long-term vision of the organization. It is the leader’s responsibility to understand and communicate the “brutal facts,” as well as to demonstrate their unwavering confidence in the ability of the team to meet the challenge.
As I said at the beginning, I have learned a lot this past year. Not all the decisions we made in 2020 were perfect, and I expect that will be true in 2021 as well. However, if we continue to follow the ideas expressed here, I’m confident things will turn out ok.
This article is part of the Learning, Adapting, and Growing: Leadership Perspectives series, which explores the role of leadership from a diverse array of perspectives. Each article is written by a Clark Nuber leader who shares their ideas on the unique challenges and opportunities they have experienced, and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.
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