This article was first published in the June 2020 China edition of
Accounting and Business magazine.

The Covid-19 pandemic upended our reality in unprecedented ways. And while we are arriving at a new normal, the necessity and significance of having to navigate and lead in uncertain times is as pronounced as ever.

As we adjust to the ongoing ripple effects and restructuring of our economic and social order, how can you continue to support yourself and your team, and grow even stronger? The strategies below will help you to effectively lead yourself and others through the next phase of the pandemic and shape the ongoing challenges to your advantage.

Maintain your empathy

The Covid-19 crisis has spiked levels of fear, stress and anxiety across the globe. From the loss of normalcy and connection, to anxiety around getting ill, to fears of the economic tolls, the crisis has not been easy for anyone. There has also been the real loss of human lives, and you and colleagues may be grieving for loved ones.

Continue demonstrating empathy for team members and colleagues who may still feel disoriented. Strive to be fully present and to listen actively and without judgment. Try to put yourself into your co-worker’s shoes; by seeing the world through their eyes, you’ll be able to help them stay calm and focused.

If you are still feeling fearful or anxious, know that this is normal and be self-compassionate. As a senior professional and leader, staff will take cues from you, so be sure to ‘put your own oxygen mask on first’ and spend time outside work enjoying the activities that help you replenish yourself and manage your anxiety. Your investment in taking care of yourself is critical to bringing your best self to your work and your team.

Communicate regularly

Continue to ease employee anxiety by providing frequent updates. In a study of crisis communication after 9/11, employees described how important it was to hear their leader’s voice – whether in person or through calls, email or social media.

To be sure, it can be challenging to decide what to communicate to your team and what to withhold. It’s easy to assume that ‘they probably already know’ or ‘they don’t need to know that’ or ‘they can’t handle that news right now’. But the reality is that if you don’t communicate frequently and clearly, your people will fill in the blanks and likely go to worst-case thinking. This tendency is especially the case as people may still be in an elevated state of stress and brains are on high alert scanning for potential threats.

Provide as much clarity as you can on company policies, procedures and direction, including how decisions are being made. Offer as much transparency as possible. Deliver ongoing updates instead of waiting until you have all of the answers. No one wins when your team is left in the dark.

Capture learnings

The Covid-19 crisis has forced us to live and work in new and different ways – some unwelcome and uncomfortable. However, in shifting us out of the habitual into new waters, the pandemic has created conditions ripe for learning. And by choosing – as an individual, team or organisation – to see adverse circumstances as learning opportunities, we can shape the challenge to our advantage.

As an individual, consider the following questions to build your self-awareness, find deeper meaning in this crisis and recognise your personal growth:

  • What strengths did you depend on? What new strengths did you discover?
  • What values or principles helped you steer? Who or what did you stand up for?
  • What new skills did you develop?
  • What did you learn about yourself?
  • How did you stretch and grow as a human being and a leader?

As a team, conduct regular retrospective meetings to help you capture your team’s learnings and be more agile as business conditions continue to shift. Productive retrospective meetings can help your team boost efficiency, improve communication, learn from mistakes and improve morale through recognising and celebrating successes.
Use the questions below to structure your retrospective. Keep the meeting fun and constructive, ensure everyone has the opportunity to have their say, and be sure to record both learnings and follow-up items:

  • What is going right that we can repeat in the future?
  • What isn’t going well, and how can we avoid it in the future?
  • What should we do differently?

See new possibilities

Crises involve fundamental shifts that create prime conditions for innovation. They shine a spotlight on where our systems are working or not, and highlight opportunities for innovation and improvement. Crises also demand more rapid ideation, decision-making and implementation, and, in doing so, unfreeze organisational structures and processes that have hardened over time. By helping us see systems in a new light and demanding fast action, crises can help unlock fresh ways of thinking and doing.

For example, the SARS pandemic in 2003 led to the explosive growth of the then-small Alibaba and pushed it to the forefront of Asian retail. The financial crisis of 2008, which resulted in reduced savings and income rates for a vast number of people, led to the rise of asset-sharing companies such as Uber and Airbnb. And we already see shifts in how consumers and businesses are behaving due to Covid-19.

Harness this opportunity for innovation in yourself and your team by creating conditions that support more creative thinking, which is the starting point for innovation. By fostering an environment that supports creativity and innovation, you can unleash the power of creativity to solve the problems you’re experiencing today and innovate for a more successful tomorrow. See the sidebar for five tips to boost creative thinking in yourself and your team.

Supporting others and improving performance through empathy and proactive communication. Capturing individual and team learnings. Leveraging shifts to foster new thinking and innovation. While we cannot be sure about when the Covid-19 crisis will end, these strategies can help you shape the challenge to your advantage. And when it’s all over, you’ll be able to look back and see that you made some good come of it.

Dina Smith is an executive coach and owner of Cognitas, a boutique leadership development firm.