By Ian Chisholm
This April, Douglas magazine reached out to Chiz for some wisdom around leading during the massively disruptive COVID-19 pandemic. With most businesses and non-profits finding their workflow, operations and sources of revenue shattered, leaders are facing incredible demands on their capabilities. In this extended version of the published article, Chiz outlines six fundamental practices to help leaders plot their course forward, illustrated by examples of how Roy Group is applying those same practices.
We heard a lot of feedback after our Conversations in Crisis interview with CHEK News (watch it here) and Douglas magazine (read it here). I’ve been invited to go a little deeper into some of the key themes that came up in the interview, to share with our community some high-level ideas for bringing organizations back to a state of robust health.
The Best Thing?
A few years ago, Roy Group did some work with Jason Dorland, a Canadian Olympian who now specializes in high-performance coaching. One of his key ideas is to respond to any destabilizing blow, whether personal or organizational, with the most counterintuitive of questions:
“How might this be the best thing that ever happened to us?”
The question is quite constructive in the way it focuses your attention. It takes you into territory where you can begin to identify some steps going forward. Where will you put your focus? Where will you invest your time? How will you deploy your cash? And how will you come out of this stronger?
We use this question a lot when we’re coaching leaders in crisis. We’ve seen our clients in Alberta ask this question when their economy began tanking a few years back. I myself have used this question myself over the past few weeks. It creates the space for some very insightful reflection and imagination.
On one hand, it sounds ridiculous, right? Obviously the COVID-19 pandemic and all of our postponed work is not a good thing. Or … is it possible that years from now, we might look back and see this summer as the time that helped our organizations evolve more than anything else?
It is possible. It all starts with being brave enough to ask the question.
The complexity of COVID
By definition, the difference between a complicated situation and a complex situation is that there are experts in first, but not in the second.
The economic recovery will be complex, meaning there are no experts to give us clear direction, like there have been for “flattening the curve”. In a way, your guess is as good as mine. Therefore, don’t take this list as a prescription, but rather as a reflection of what has worked to date for our company.
1. Zealously Assess.
No one knows what will work to get your business to solid ground. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t figure out ways forward. In a complex system, the most important thing for a leader to do is to constantly assess. What is required in the midst of complexity like this economic recovery is for leaders to sense what is … and then experiment. Great sailors learn how to read the wind on the surface of the water.
Create little experiments that just might work … and then zealously assess what experiments are working and what experiments are not. Fuel the experiments that are working. Put a bullet in the experiments that aren’t, so they don’t distract you any further. Then experiment some more.
To illustrate, Roy Group had a two-and-a-half-day retreat planned with ATB Financial when coronavirus intervened. The timing of the retreat, however, was really important to our client. So we poured some serious focus into creating an experiment, and created very clear measurements for what would make this experiment successful.
We proposed a series of online episodes to work through the material and the conversations ATB wanted to have — and then we delivered. It wasn’t polished. It was very experimental. It scored a 9.6/10 from the participants.
And our whole team now knows that we are capable of doing this for all of our clients.
Note: intelligent experimenting is not the same as flailing around trying different stuff. Be rigorous in your assessment of whether your experiments are working. Like we’ve learned from FuckUp Nights™ and other explorations of failure, you might have to try five experiments to find the one that works. Prepare “probes” that just might work. Ready yourself and your team to fail lots. You must cleave yourself from the idea that an effective leader always succeeds. Destroy that mental model.
This concept of zealous assessment is CEO and Chief Scientific Officer of Cognitive Edge David Snowden’s theory. Assess whether your experiments work or not, and KEEP MOVING.
2. Entangle yourself with new and trusted networks.
But is entangle really the right word?
Yes. It’s the right word. Entanglement, because we are in the realm of complexity, and in an acknowledgment that solutions to complex problems arise from a multitude of points, you are going to spin a wide-ranging web that crosses sectors and boundaries.
Nobody knows the right answers for where we find ourselves right now, so you need to surround yourself with four or five people whose ways of thinking you trust, and who can share the kinds of ideas that will allow each of you to gain ground. Some will work; others won’t. An idea that works for one company won’t necessarily work for another.
Comb through your LinkedIn and think of people you’ve enjoyed amazing and/or disruptive conversations with. Reach out and ask for a half-hour call. Choose conversation partners from different sectors and backgrounds — even people with whom you disagree. In complexity, a valuable thing for a leader to do is entangle yourself in those conversations, to pick up on weak signals of those things that just might work going forward in your organization, and to be openly sharing what you’re doing in case something you’re doing might work for somebody else.
Invite some disruptive thinkers into this group: people who aren’t typically in your social circle, or of your ethnic or gender background, or from the same socioeconomic strata. Convene conversations you wouldn’t normally have. Challenge your thinking so you don’t get stuck in a rut. Having set everyone back on their heels, coronavirus has given us the time — and the shove — to do that.
Resilience is not something we can snap our fingers today and HAVE. Resilience is a by-product of past habits, patterns and rituals that we have set up for ourselves so that we can be strong in the face of challenges. Begin developing the rituals now that will build your resilience over the long term.
3. Protect your momentum.
When things started to get serious, I flew back from Edmonton. It was a Friday afternoon. The very moment our government made the decision to cancel gatherings of 50 or more, our business model was rendered null and void.
Our leadership met for an early breakfast the next day. In a few hours of deep reflection and planning, we went from frazzled to focused. As a foursome, we laid out all of Roy Group’s achievements over the past 12 months. It was a huge and rewarding endeavour, and it put us in a confident state of mind. We definitely had the team strength to make the turn.
As a leader, it’s vital that you take an objective look at what your team is capable of. Put that information in front of your team to keep your momentum. If this COVID-19 event represents a dip for your organization, the last thing you want to do is to hit the brakes. This is not cheerleading. It’s not pumping people’s tires. It’s giving undeniable evidence of what they are capable of. It’s saying to your people, Yes, the reality of what we’re facing is daunting, but let’s not forget what our team is capable of.
For us, we drew forward 3o major accomplishments in the last year that we were able to share with our team right when things looked their hardest.
From there, get honest about where your organization is at, and what’s getting in the way of your momentum. We put together a survey for our team, asking what they love about working with Roy Group and soliciting honest insights about what’s not working. Crisis tends to free a certain amount of prior constriction, and in the case of our team, we found that people were willing to be super open. (Another factor that created safety for people to be honest was knowing that I would be the only person to see their feedback.)
Your job as a leader is to protect as much as possible those things that your team loves about your organization. It is also your job to eliminate the friction points — those things that are getting in the way of your team’s momentum.
4. Focus Your Team
Gallup did a recent study that showed people have four universal needs in crisis when it comes to their leaders: trust, compassion, stability and hope. It is urgent that leaders help people focus on how their work connects to the bigger purpose or mission of the endeavour.
“In times of crisis, there are two directions human nature can take us: fear, helplessness and victimization — or self-actualization and engagement,” writes Gallup author Jim Harter. “On the latter, if leaders have a clear way forward, human beings are amazingly resilient. There is a documented ‘rally effect’.”
Focusing your team also means recognizing where individuals are at, mentally and emotionally. People respond to crises differently. Figure out who on your team needs to call a ‘time out’ for themselves, and who’s doubling down with a serious appetite to work. Don’t judge any of it. People are signalling to you what they need. Your work is to be conscious of where they’re at, and then provide them with opportunities to reengage when the time is right.
Watch for decision fatigue. In our work with incident commanders in the BC Wildfire Service, we know that after 14 consecutive days of being switched on, people’s decision-making capabilities start to fray at the edges. Vision starts to be compromised. For those on your team who are doubling down and getting their hands dirty, you’ve got to help them be conscious of where they are, and that they’re not taking on too much. Every person on the team needs something slightly different. Focus on that — and help your team get focused for you.
To move through the crisis, Roy Group broke our calendar year into chunks. We marked off the first two weeks to reassess, to connect with our clients on what they’re needing, to handle the booking changes, and to decide how to use April. We structured April as an investment of time and money to work on things we haven’t had a chance to work on, because the nature of our business is that it’s full-on. We distributed leadership among our team around developing priority projects, with two days at the end of April earmarked for showcasing those projects.
Focusing your team means breaking your plans into manageable pieces to make ground little by little. Zealously assess how to use the weeks in front of you. That is how you will make sure you come out of this better than you were before, both in terms of your team dynamic and what your organization is capable of delivering.
5. Focus on the Horizon
Crisis mode is compelling — even addictive. Be careful.
This insight arises from our coaching conversations with our most senior clients — people whose job it is to make important decisions that impact the lives of millions.
Regardless of what COVID-19 is asking of you, remember that you were hired for a reason — to deliver on a promise — and that mandate still exists. No matter how tempted you are to jump into the trenches with your people and “save lives” 24/7, you have an important mission to lead.
Part of our urge to put down our hammer and take up the sword is biological: our nervous system becomes fired up in crisis. It’s gripping to see a team galvanized by urgency. Intrinsic collegiality leaps to the fore. It’s enjoyable to see each other this way, and it’s important for us to recognize how important the team is at this time — to demonstrate care for one another and to find ourselves linked anew by our common humanity.
But as leaders, we were responsible for big things two months ago. The context has changed but those big things that we were tasked with before this all hit are still our responsibility. The fact that we are still responsible for progressing those things may not be as compelling as responding to this crisis, but that is the work we must do.
6. Control the Controllables
Another fantastic Jason Dorland phrase. You can’t control the pandemic; you can’t control the economy; you can’t control the future. But you can control a few key variables:
- Where you place your focus. Put somebody on your team in charge of your organization’s COVID response. Someone who’s nimble and a good communicator and who likes looking at evidence. Let someone else deal with the crisis. You stay focused on your team’s wellbeing, and on your big work.
- How you spend your time. Make calls to your most important clients. Reformulate your offering so it meets their current needs. Be risky and ambitious that way. Ask yourself: if you were starting your company from scratch, how would you take what you have to market in light of the needs that you see now? Develop partnerships by reaching out and asking people for help that you might not normally talk to. Spend time in the back room coming up with ideas for solutions to the new challenges you’re facing.
- How you manage cash. Take a look at cash flow and cut anything that is not required. Renegotiate anything that can be renegotiated while still keeping partnerships strong. Apply for government grants. Figure out financing, whether it’s your reserves or something you’re planning to borrow. If your business was fully functional over the last five years, it’s going to be relatively easy to secure a loan with a bank because you have a track record of how your business performs under normal circumstances. Lower your expectations about how much money you’re going to put in the bank this year. (You’ll be surprised by how freeing it is to call 2020 an investment year, and to suddenly not have to hit those daunting revenue targets.)
COVID-19 has been a little like showing up at the doctor’s office with an unfamiliar ailment and learning that it’s a warning sign for something bigger. We’ve been given the gift of a wake-up call — an opportunity to course-correct. It’s hard, it’s uncomfortable — for many, it’s downright scary. But without the early symptoms, we’d have raced right past the warning signs and straight into the arms of full-blown disease.
Just might be the best thing that ever happened.
Ian Chisholm is a founding partner of Roy Group.