Leaders: You Must be Present to Win

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Years ago, the company I worked for was struggling. We hadn’t hit our numbers in months, and it was determined that layoffs would be necessary. Secret meetings were scheduled, often early in the morning or late in the day. Spreadsheets were created, reviewed, and updated. The process went on for weeks. During that time, if you happened to catch a glimpse of one of our executives, it would have been racing through the halls from meeting room to office, quickly and with focus. When they arrived safely in their offices, our leaders closed their doors, so as not to be asked questions that were impossible to answer.

If you’ve been around awhile, you’ve likely witnessed this kind of behavior. It’s completely understandable, and an absolute disaster. Employees know their leaders are privy to private information, and that there are things they can’t share. They get it. But when leaders start to hide away, purposely making themselves unavailable, it makes employees angry and nervous. And what do employees do when they’re angry and nervous about their jobs? They look for new ones. In most cases, your best employees are the ones who’ll find jobs first.

This is what happened at the company I’m describing. What started out as a small, potentially containable reduction in force turned into a mass exodus, as employees lost trust in their leaders and looked elsewhere. I learned a lesson I will never forget: leaders must be present to win.

Unprecedented times

Remember back in March when the coronavirus was spiking and our employers sent us home? My company’s first fully remote day was Friday, March 13. We thought we’d be back in two or three weeks, tops.

It’s shocking to remember how naive we were at the start of this global pandemic. Did we really think it would be taken care of in two weeks? My first note to the team included a sentence or two about the emotional aspects of the situation, and then a full page of logistics: best practices for remote meetings, core hours, ergonomic concerns, and the like. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t awesome. I soon learned that the logistics of working from home were going to need to take a backseat to the more pressing concerns of my team members, like fear and loneliness.

In March, there was no way to know what leadership challenges we’d be facing in the coming months. We said the word “unprecedented” a lot, but how many of us fully understood what that meant? If a global pandemic was our only challenge, there were still no books to read to get us through, no podcasts to listen to from people who’d been through it before. And a global pandemic was not our only challenge.

Still, at that time we had our hands full with the things we knew about. As three weeks turned to four, and then five, my leadership team and I looked for new ways to keep the team upbeat, engaged, productive, and informed. Our weekly all hands meeting would continue, of course, complemented by daily leadership stand-ups and a weekly all-team happy hour, with trivia and other fun games. We slowly settled into our new normal.

Staying in touch

There’s a big difference between leading a remote team and leading a remote team during a pandemic. It was a little bit different for my technology team, but in general, my company had considered working remotely a perk, reserved for all-stars who had proven themselves capable and trust worthy. When working remotely became a requirement on March 13, it was as big an adjustment for managers as it was for individual contributors.

A technology team, of course, handles issues as they occur, at all hours of the day, from wherever we happen to be. This means the logistics of working remotely had been figured out ages ago, as a matter of course. I had zero concern in this area.

But I was concerned about how I was going to continue to connect with my team members. Each of our teams has a daily standup, but I’m not on any of the teams, and “walking the floor” had been an important part of my routine. How would I replicate that in an all-virtual environment?

The short answer is that I couldn’t, but I could find other ways to connect. I became a Slack power user, adding comments in channels where I used to lurk quietly, and reaching out to employees I didn’t naturally cross paths with on a regular basis. I blocked time on my calendar time for these Slack check-ins, almost as though they were one-on-ones.

I did – and I do – other things too. I’ve scheduled long-distance lunch dates with employees and teammates, gone for bike rides and walks, and hosted small socially-distanced happy hours in my backyard. I’ve sent emails, texted, showed up at meetings, and met people at parks. The reasons for doing these things are both personal and professional. Of course I need to find creative ways to stay close to the work my team is doing, to get beyond the surface. But I also need to stay close to the people. I miss seeing them in real life, and I need to make sure they know they’re on my mind, that I care.

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The weekly email

Nearly every Monday morning since March 16, I’ve sent an email to my entire team (I missed two when I was on vacation). It’s a commitment I made to myself on day one, and George Floyd’s murder and the events that followed reinforced the need. There were things I needed to say, and things the team needed to hear. Even if I couldn’t see every person on my team every week, I needed to be present, and I need to communicate proactively.

After more than five months, it can be hard to find ways to keep the emails fresh and new, but that’s not really the point. Some weeks I write about world events or work highlights. Other weeks I discuss things that are happening in my family or articles I find. It can be hard to find the right balance between sharing my opinions and veering into what currently passes for politics, but I try. Here are a few excerpts from my emails.

March 23:

My family, like most of yours, is trying to make the most of our time together without killing each other. My teenage son works at the local Kowalski’s, and he’s thoroughly enjoying being the only person in our family classified by the government as an “emergency worker.” 

June 8:

Over the course of the last week, George Floyd’s murder went from being a local story about an unjust police killing in Minneapolis to a national emergency focused on much larger, systemic issues. Thousands of people across the country are joining together and saying “no more.” It’s about time. Please stay safe and wear your masks out there.

July 27:

I know it can feel weird to do, given that most people aren’t actually going anywhere, but an occasional day off can be fantastic for our mental health, and I strongly encourage people to use PTO when you can. Most people are not currently doing this. Maybe you’re saving it for a rainy day, or hoping things will open up more this year? Fair enough. I’m not telling you what to you – my only motive is to make sure those of you who need a break find a way to get one. Burnout is real, and it’s something I’d like to avoid, if possible. 

You get the idea. The email isn’t magical, but it reminds my team that I’m here, that I’m human, and that I’m deeply invested in our success. It also keeps me present and gives me another opportunity to lead, and I’ve gotten consistent feedback that the team likes it. (By the way, if something important happens today, I’m not going to wait until next Monday’s email to reach out to the team.)

Employee expectations

As I mentioned earlier, we’re in uncharted territory, both as employees and as leaders. You can argue that great leadership strategies work regardless of the situation, but let’s face it: Jack Welch never led a team through a pandemic.

There are a lot of things we don’t know – how long the coronavirus will last, its lasting impact on our businesses, when we’ll be back in our offices, the outcome of the next election, whether we’ll make real improvements related to equity, and so much more. It’s incredibly hard to lead a team through so much uncertainty. In order to do it, we need to free ourselves from the idea that our teams expect us to be all-knowing. They don’t.

But our teams do expect certain things from us, especially now. They expect us to be honest, for example, and to be as transparent as possible, even though they know we sometimes have information that can’t be shared. They expect us to listen to their concerns, and to escalate them within our organizations as it makes sense. They expect us to understand that it’s impossible to be completely present in a meeting when they’re bouncing their toddlers on their laps. They expect us to be human, and – even if they don’t always show it – they know we’re feeling a lot of the same stress and uncertainty they are. Most of all, our teams expect us to be present, to show our faces, and to walk the talk.

In this post, I’ve shared a few of my own ideas and strategies for being present with my team. I hope some of them are useful to you, but I’m very aware that I don’t have it all figured out – we’re all learning as we go. Now I’d love to hear your ideas and strategies. How are you finding ways to connect with your teams? What’s working, and what’s not? How are you balancing your own stress with your work? How are you showing the team they’re in good hands? How are you leveraging technology? How are you being present for your team every single day? I’d love to know.

2 thoughts on “Leaders: You Must be Present to Win

  1. Allen Chung

    To answer your question “How are you leveraging technology?” I’ve combed through Slack plug-ins to enhance the culture & optimize my time.

    – GameMonk (https://gamemonk.actionably.com/) is a free Slack plug-in that has a couple free quick games. Categories like “Name all NFL teams” or “Name movies that Jennifer Lawrence has been in”.
    – I’ve combined GameMonk with Send It Later (https://senditlater.app/) so that I can schedule those games at a certain time.
    – Rock, Paper, Scissors via Slack (https://lonely.engineer/rps/) is a fun one where we did a Technology-wide tournament. All of this is in a Slack channel called #fun-zone, so people can opt in whenever they want to play a game.

    In addition to the high tech games, I’ve hosted a couple Teams calls where we play Deal or No Deal or The Price is Right. I found a dynamic spreadsheet that does Deal or No Deal, which is pretty cool.

    tl;dr Lots of Slack plug-ins that can lighten the mood while we’re all remote.

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    Reply

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