Leading Through Uncertainty

Your team, your boss, and a bunch of other people need you now more than ever.

Because you have responsibility, knowledge, and insights that can be converted into decisions, directions, and support.

These things are important all the time, and especially in uncertain times. And we have not seen times this uncertain in a long while, perhaps ever.

The Coronavirus pandemic is a rapidly emerging worldwide shock to the system. That shock will ripple out for weeks and months to come.

But now is your time to lead. The early hours and days are crucial to any effort. And more-so in a crisis.

What does your team need?

Three things rise to the top: clarity, a steady flow of communications, and the best information you can get for your personal and professional networks.

Be clear and transparent

First, uncertain times require clarity. There is a fog, shifting sands, and a rapidly changing landscape. Now more than ever people need you to provide a guiding light.

You do not have to have all the answers. But you need to be a guide.

You need to provide direction. It does not need to be perfect. In fact, you will serve those around you well by being transparent.

The mistake many leaders make in chaotic times is to regress into a sort of leadership bubble. The gut reaction can be to feel like you must isolate and come up with the right answer and then bestow that upon the team.

I would argue that that does not work so well most of the time and an absolute mistake in times of uncertainty.

Right now a lot of blocking and tackling needs to be done. Decisions need to be directionally appropriate to a longer term idea of where things are going. But many need to be small, specific, and fast.

And you need to be ok with getting some things wrong.

Now, more than ever, it is a time to be “thinking in bets” as Annie Duke would say. The way you make smarter decisions when you don’t have all the facts is to consider probabilities not what is “right” or “wrong.”

It is important to make a good decision about the next step, then reassessing and adjusting in order to make the step after that.

This approach, and these times, require that you up your game on the communications front.

Communicate effectively

To get the benefit of feedback loops and rapid ideation, as well as to provide the comfort that comes from touching base more frequently, now is the time to ramp up communications with your team and everyone around you.

Especially when uncertainty is so widespread, it is important to recognize that many of the regular channels of communication in your organization are going to be broken or strained.

People are likely a bit scattered, emotionally and physically, as communication channels are shifted.

Face to face meetings are ceasing or diminishing. The comforts of routine are being upset. People are stumbling with new (to them) technologies to connect.

In normal times, I feel like it is impossible to over-communicate. That is even more true now.

If you open up multiple methods like email, text, Slack, web meetings, conference calls, and other formats, you can greatly improve communications with your team. Each channel has its own strengths, weaknesses, and sense of decorum. Using multiple channels doesn’t create redundancy as much as it allows for more nuance.

Speaking of redundancy, we are often so preoccupied by the worship of “productivity” that it hurts communication. Ironically, this lowers productivity.

It is better to be repetitive, especially now. For example, too many leadership teams try to address too many issues with a single broadcast email. The box gets checked and the team moves on. That is a bad habit that won’t work well in a time of crises.

Key issues, concerns, decisions, and requests for feedback need to be repeated. Using multiple channels of communication can help convey (and collect) nuance. And repeated messages are more easily received, stick better, and are more comforting.

At the same time, listen for inputs. You need input from your team and anyone you are working with now more than ever.

What you hear from each individual is crucial input to your decision making and communication. This includes how they are feeling.

This is not business as usual. So make sure you not only check in with people but that you check on people. How are they doing? A lot is new to them right now. A lot is uncertain. A few minutes with you will likely make a huge difference.

But also look beyond your team and your organization. Now is the time to leverage your network.

Use your network

Check in with peers in your industry to see how others are faring. Those reference points can help you to make better decisions, share helpful information, and provide relevant reference points for those you work with.

You might be part of a professional association. Or maybe you have a stack of cards from people you met at conferences last year. Perhaps you have some connections to people in your industry on LinkedIn.

Now is the time to reach out and see how they are doing. What issues are they facing? What concerns do they have? What are they worried about? What sort of decisions are they making?

You will certainly learn a lot and you will probably also be able to help them with advice and ideas and insights.

Along those lines, please feel free to reach out to me directly if you think there is anything I can help you with (tom at worksmarterstressless dot com).

I’m in Boston and things have escalated rapidly here this week. I expect that to continue. It is a leadership challenge to those of us with operational and leadership responsibilities.

But it is also an opportunity to learn and improve. Perhaps like no other opportunity we will have professionally.

You can lead your way through this

In times of uncertainty there are a few things a leader can do to help immediately.

First and foremost, be clear and transparent. You do not need to have all the answers, but you do need to set direction. Making small decisions quickly is helpful. People need to know what the next steps are.

Next, communicate early and often. Use multiple modes of communication, repeat your messages, and actively seek feedback and ideas from everyone.

Finally, use your network. Now is the time to check-in with peers and contacts around your geographic area and across your industry. Sharing ideas, comparing reactions, and helping each other will go a long way.

Do your best. Be well and stay safe.