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  • Susan Snedaker

Opportunity in Crisis

There is no doubt this COVID-19 pandemic has created crises of untold proportions. Whether you believe the official death toll is higher or lower than reported; whether you believe businesses should reopen or stay closed; whether you are on the left or the right side of politics, you cannot deny things have changed. What the world looks like in five or ten years will be defined, at least in part, by the decisions you make today.

The loss of life, the absolute devastation to families, friends and communities who have lost loved ones to the COVID-19 virus cannot be overstated.

In addition to death and illness, alone enough to cope with, people around the world and here in the US, are facing economic devastation as well. Before the pandemic, it was a fact that a majority of Americans had less than $400 in savings. When the pandemic shut down restaurants, hotels, airlines, shops and services, many of these same folks were suddenly without income. The gig economy, previously touted as a great opportunity to make your living your way, crumbled. Millions are now unemployed and barely surviving (or not surviving at all) financially. This is an incredibly difficult time for millions of people, and that needs to be acknowledged first and foremost. It is our duty as family, neighbors, and communities to help each other in this time of need.

At this critical time, it's also important for business leaders to understand that crisis and opportunity are two sides of the same coin. Here are three ideas for finding leadership opportunities in this crisis.

Lead with Compassion

Many companies are having to furlough employees or reduce their hours. A business leader has to find the very difficult balance between keeping the company afloat financially and helping the individuals in that company. Often there are no good solutions and a leader has to choose between the ‘least worst’ options. It’s important, though, for leaders to take a deep 360 view of the company to avoid a potentially myopic response. Look at those in your organization who are hourly workers and those who make the lowest wages. Make plans to see how you can help mitigate the impact – even if it’s providing transportation or providing free groceries to those most in need.

Some companies have re-allocated staff from areas that are closed to areas that need assistance. One IT shop pulled in some furloughed food service employees to help with a re-cabling project. The company could afford the wages, it just couldn’t afford to pay people if there was no value-added work to be done. Finding ways to minimize the negative impact on employees in these trying times requires an ability to think creatively and a commitment to finding a workable solution.

Lead with Courage

I believe this and my go-to phrase is “Leaders always rise” – meaning regardless of title or role, leaders emerge. In this COVID-19 crisis, we’ve seen many different types of leaders rise. From doctors in EDs to nurses tending COVID-positive patients, from community volunteers helping the elderly to furloughed employees helping their neighbors, people can rise up and become leaders or…they can…not.

In this time of uncertainty, people need clear, calm, rational leadership. In your organization, regardless of your role, how can you rise up and be the leader that’s needed? By taking on challenges, by finding solutions (rather than obsessing on the problems), and by having the courage to make difficult, but necessary, decisions for the organization you can lead by example. Nothing in this time is easy, but leaders will find ways to steady the course. Be brave, be smart, be kind.

Lead with Innovation

Finally, what opportunities does this crisis present? In every crisis, there is opportunity. Leaders look for those opportunities. Not through opportunistic misdeeds, but through creative, innovative new paths. One company leveraged the work-from-home order to vastly improve its remote access technologies; another company leveraged the lull in work in one part of the company to do some deep, strategic thinking about its technical architecture and came up with a million dollar savings idea. Still another company extended its service capabilities to smaller, hard-hit companies to provide assistance and support at this difficult time.

Within organizations, millions of hours of meetings have been cancelled. Now’s the time to do some organizational self-reflection and decide how many of those meetings should stay cancelled. Clear out assumptions about what will be needed based on the past and look boldly to the future.

How should our work look next month and next year?

How can this time, this crisis, fuel our best opportunities for growth and change?

Never in my career have I seen these kinds of opportunities for unfettered change. Not all change is good, of course. But by looking at the past and re-imagining the future based on what’s happening now, we can improve the way we run our businesses. If you could keep the 30 hours of meetings per week off your calendar permanently, what would you do? More importantly, what should you do?

To quote Peter Drucker: "Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things."

What should your new future look like?

The question is what can you do now that you couldn’t do before and probably won’t get a chance to do again? Move fast, move decisively. Make a conscious, constructive difference so this crisis will yield something positive in the months and years to come.

Stay safe, stay healthy, wash your hands, be kind to others.

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