Key lessons learned during the Covid-19 pandemic that transformed effective leadership, including emphasizing the importance of providing your team with new modes of support.
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Being an effective leader means supporting both employees and customers. During the upheaval of 2020, this was especially essential, and certainly challenging, as we navigated the changes from how we work to politics and the very structure of society. Interestingly, McKinsey & Company found that executives reported that their companies responded to a range of changes much more quickly than they thought possible before the COVID-19 pandemic.
In July of 2020, I became general manager of the application performance management and IT operations analytics company, AppDynamics, taking over that leadership position in the heart of this period of uncertainty. Since then, I have learned a great deal. Below are three key lessons that helped me get through nearly a full year at the helm — ones that any leader can leverage.
The most important foundational investment you can ever make is in people. How you bring an organization together, especially during times like the recent pandemic, demonstrates such commitment. To that end, perhaps start by innovating on how to accommodate the challenges your teams face while working from home (an increasingly likely prospect of continuing indefinitely), such as managing a child’s learning while a parent works full-time. Our Employee Experience team, for example, revamped its offerings to include programs that focus on how to stay mentally and physically healthy during COVID, including a virtual Silly Circus to entertain kids at home. Looking to reduce meetings (to help battle “meeting fatigue”) as well as get employees in the flow, we also launched a no-meeting day, which was so well received that we expanded it to twice a month.
How we demonstrate our values needs to show up not just in our personal lives, but at work. So, we hosted guest speakers on issues that were both tethered to our company values and on the minds of employees, such as the fight for racial justice in the U.S. Additionally, our entire executive team jumped to participate in a reverse-mentorship program with African American/Black colleagues to boost both those intuitions and awareness generally. We also sponsored donation-matching blitzes so employees could amplify their impact on causes they care about, and the response has been overwhelming.
Resulting company check-ins, town halls and ongoing conversations played a key role in providing a safe space as well as in educating one another. To be sure leadership was listening as much as talking; we set aside more time for Q&As at our town halls and used the real-time polling platform, Slido, to prioritize questions that mattered most to employees.
Drive Focus, and Be Decisive
The pandemic forced entire industries to embrace the need to adapt, and quickly. Some processes were smooth transitions, while others were more difficult. As you move higher up in an organization, problems become more complex and your decisions become more impactful. It gets scary, and it can be tempting to lean on additional discovery and analysis in response. Many times, however, this results in “analysis paralysis”, which can lead to torpor — exactly what’s not needed. The key is to understand the big picture and focus a team on your top priorities. As you face decisions, weigh the largest trade-offs based on those priorities and agree (or disagree) and commit. Almost always, the inability to pick a path is more damaging and tumultuous for an organization than making the wrong decision and having to go back to iterate. As you build this muscle, you’ll find teams gaining velocity in execution and that will allow you to fail faster and iterate quickly.
Once people find themselves in a leadership position, it’s easy to forget a growth mindset. I strongly believe that every person I meet has something to teach me; whether I choose to learn from them or not is up to me. Leaders are exposed to so many individuals, and finding the energy to stay curious is tough, but critical. So, ask questions, double-click into their perspectives, and let them teach you. From learning about the nuances of each part of the business to the art of making the best matcha, people around me teach me something new every day. I’ve also learned the value in knowing where to find answers; instead of trying to be the expert, I’ve focused on knowing who the experts are. Connecting them with interesting problems is one of the best ways I see companies move fast and innovate.
We don’t know exactly what the future will look like, and there will inevitably be more challenges ahead, but we can apply what we learned this last year and be more prepared for uncertainty in the future. There are always ways we can grow as individuals and help our teams and companies develop with us.