• “I just want to go to one meeting and not have to talk about Covid…it’s overwhelming.” – Physician
  • “I’ve been never worked so hard and have so little to show for it.” – Consultant
  • “I am spending the majority of my day trying to track who is or is not at work and who is or is not sick.” – HR Professional
  • “Before COVID I would get home around 6 and be able to enjoy my family.  Now I am not traveling and working alone in my home office until 9:00 at night…it’s exhausting.”  – Sales Professional
  • “I’m quitting – I have had to tell over 100 families their loved ones passed away.” – Nurse

These are all statements made to me just in the last week.  We are all feeling it!  The last nine months have definitely been challenging for each and every one of us. Here at Steople what we have witnessed with our clients has been work from home orders, downsizing, compassion fatigue (especially in healthcare), agonizing decisions, and working much longer hours.  But on the other side of this difficult time in history, there are many lessons!  Across the board, I feel we have all learned to adapt in the moment, become more creative in our problem solving, and gotten very comfortable with ambiguity.  But how can we put all of this to work for us in 2021?

Post-COVID Review
Many of you probably already utilize post-project reviews on your own team.  Why not implement something similar at this time of year…a post-pandemic review for 2020 (realizing it is far from over)?  Being able to look back and discuss as a team what could have gone better might be time well-spent.  Here are some helpful tips to facilitate the conversation:

  • Ask for openness – Emphasize the importance of being open and honest in your assessment, and make sure that people aren’t in any way punished for being open.
  • Be objective – Describe what has happened in objective terms, and then focus on improvements.
  • Document success – Document practices and procedures that led to successes, and make recommendations for applying them to future issues.
  • Look with hindsight – Pay attention to the “unknowns” (now known!) that may have increased implementation risks. Develop a way of looking out for these for future difficult events.
  • Be future-focused – Remember, the purpose is to focus on the future, not to assign blame for what happened in the past. This is not the time to focus on any one person or team.
  • Look at both positives and negatives – Identify positive as well as negative lessons.

Today I’m going to lay out what I see as some of the top “silver lining” leadership lessons that I have learned that will stay with me for years to come. As I document these I am going to get a little help from some of our most respected leadership thought leaders.

Give Grace to Others
A client is late to a Zoom meeting, the restaurant didn’t get your lunch order right, a direct report missed an important detail in a presentation, and your 16-year-old forgot to set his morning alarm.  Hmmm…in these situations it is tough to hold the assumption of positive intent.  Brené Brown writes that asking leaders to assume others are doing the best they can move them from “pushing and grinding on the same issues” to the more difficult task of:

  • teaching their team,
  • reassessing their skill gaps,
  • reassigning them,
  • or letting them go.

“It’s a commitment to stop respecting and evaluating people based solely on what we think they should accomplish, and start respecting them for who they are, and holding them accountable for what they’re actually doing,” she says.

Find Joy in Missing Out
The pandemic has forced us to curb so many of our regular activities.  I’ve always said Mother Nature sometimes can stop us dead in our tracks and clear our calendars. Nothing could be truer in the past several months.  We must establish a new mindset.  One key strategy Adam Grant advocates are practicing gratitude. “I know many people are feeling FOMO, the fear of missing out, right now on all the things that could be happening in their lives,” Grant says. “But there’s also such a thing as JOMO: the joy of missing out.”  His gratitude list, for example, includes wearing sweatpants to work, skipping his commute, and having fewer awkward interactions with strangers.  Mine include having quiet time to work on much-needed projects, focusing on healthy eating habits, and more time with my 16-year-old son.

Realize The Importance of Human Contact
One of the most difficult parts of 2020 for those of us who are “high touch” people have been no handshakes, hugs, or expressions due to being behind a mask.  Paul Zak, the author of The Moral Molecule, argues, “We touch to initiate and sustain cooperation.” He conducted a “neuroeconomics” study from which he argues that hugs or handshakes are likely to cause the release of the neurochemical oxytocin, which increases the chances that a person will treat you “like family,” even if you just met.  He states there are even economic benefits to physical touch, probably because “touch signals safety and trust; it soothes.” Basic warm touch calms cardiovascular stress. It activates the body’s vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassionate response.” NBA teams whose players touch each other more, for example, win more games.

Understand Ambiguity is Here to Stay
Looking at an organizational chart, you will see boxes and lines. Boxes are what the individual job is and the lines are the reporting relations. Although most of a leader’s work might fall within their job description, the meaningful activities that will advance an organization never truly fall into any specific “box,” but surf in between them in the white space.  My observations of the past few months are very clear. The leaders who had the most comfort with the ambiguity of the white space and were able to bring a team of teams to work together as one have been able to achieve a tremendous and impactful amount of work in ways that heavily exceeded normal productivity – especially in the midst of chaos.

To emphasize this point, in his new book, Simon Sinek advocates that as leaders get beyond the normal day-to-day elasticity that running a business demands, playing the “infinite game” requires existential flexibility. What exactly is existential flexibility?  Simon Sinek describes it as, “The capacity to initiate an extreme disruption to a business model or strategic course in order to more effectively advance a Just Cause.” In other words, it’s a big-time offensive maneuver and not to be confused with the defensive adjustments companies make when facing changing client needs or market conditions.

Double Down on Discipline
When the pandemic kicked in mid-March I began to research what companies not only survived, but thrived during the economic downturn of 2007/2008. In a previous blog, I mentioned that one of the strategies they utilized was being disciplined and consistent.  In “Great by Choice,” Jim Collins recounts several stories of outrageous behavior by former Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher, including resolving a trade slogan dispute with another company by arm wrestling the firm’s CEO in an arena in front of hundreds of employees. He did this not for the sake of weirdness, but because by “behaving with outlandish consistency,” he was animating a culture designed to be high-spirited and fun-loving. His point was that ultra-successful CEOs exhibited a fanatical level of self-discipline, doing “whatever it takes to create a great outcome, no matter how difficult.”

So before you start to disperse for your holiday celebrations, sit down with your team and pose these three questions to them documenting as you go:

Reflecting back on how our team performed in 2020…

  • What do we need to start doing?
  • What do we need to keep doing?
  • What do we need to stop doing?

My guess is you will find some “golden nugget” responses that you will be able to leverage as we roll into 2021.  Have a great rest of the week and finish this crazy, unpredictable year strong!