Leading In Uncharted Waters: Seattle CEO Responds To Coronavirus

After receiving positive feedback on this post TINYpulse Founder and CEO David Niu shared WFH (Working From Home) Essentials For COVID-19 Impacted Leaders. Click here to see the full post. 

On March 1st, I shared this message RE the Coronavirus / COVID-19 virus with all the folks at TINYpulse.  I have to admit that I wrote and rewrote that email multiple times. 

I struggled mightily because I’ve never confronted a situation like this as a leader, husband, and parent. All the messages and articles in the media were so overwhelming about what was going on, and since TINYpulse is headquartered in Washington state...we were also located at the  epicenter of the US outbreak. 

Since I am not an expert on this topic by any stretch of the imagination, I set out to cobble together as much data as I could. Many of the bullets that I shared in my email came from others, who I respected. 

I’m fortunate to belong to a CEO peer group, and we were able to lean heavily on each other and customize messages that worked for our organization. During one of our monthly meetings last week, we shared that as a leader the wake we leave behind us is much larger than we can imagine. What we say, how we act, what we don’t say is all digested and interpreted by our team. So upon reflection, I wanted to share some thoughts:

  • It’s OK to admit what you don’t know. I believe that some leaders think that if they don’t have all the answers, they shouldn’t communicate until they do. I think that’s the wrong approach because in the absence of communicating, people will fill that vacuum with their perceptions. Those perceptions become reality. I always err on being as transparent as possible even when acknowledging that I just don’t know.
  • But state what you do know. Share what you do believe to be true. For example, we let the team know the efforts we were doing to wipe down and disinfect commonly touched areas like door handles and that all travel should be reconsidered. Of course since then, we have canceled multiple trips as the situation continues to develop. 
  • Borrow from others. Since I’m not expert in this area, I have been reading quite a bit to keep on top of the situation as best possible. I keep track of pieces that really resonate with me so that I can share with my team. I definitely don’t plan on recreating the wheel, so I cobble together thoughts, resources, and ideas from others and then customize it to our organization’s needs.
  • Inform them how you plan to keep communicating. I also established that every Friday I would send an update to the team. I committed to giving an update even if I don’t have an update, which is very unlikely given the rapidly changing conditions. I believe the team appreciates this consistency in a world that is changing so quickly.
  • Outline communication channels. We also shared that if they have any questions, they can reach out to me, their manager, or HR. On top of that, they can always provide anonymous feedback into the TINYpulse Virtual Suggestion box. We want to have as many channels open as possible to engage with our team.

On top of the above, given the flexible nature of the TINYpulse platform, we’ve seen numerous clients ask Custom Questions regarding the COVID-19 virus situation. Since this is of course on top of your people’s minds, here’s some suggested questions you can ask your team:

  • What concerns or questions do you have about the Coronavirus / COVID-19 virus that impacts you personally or that impacts our organization?
  • The Coronavirus / COVID-19 virus situation is evolving rapidly, so on a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the cadence and value of the information shared with you? Please share why you provided that rating
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate our organization’s response to the Coronavirus / COVID-19 virus to date? Please share why you provided that rating?
  • Regarding the Coronavirus / COVID-19 virus situation, what are your top 2 concerns or suggestions (if any) that you'd like us to consider?

For us, we decided to TINYpulse out the last question because this is something that everyone is probably thinking, so we’d like to be able to address as much as we can and as transparently as we can. At the same time, if we don’t have an answer, that’s exactly what I will share until I do know the answer.

While evaluating responses, themes started emerging that I think you’ll see as well when you ask your team:

  • F-U-D. Fear - Uncertainty - Doubt as a prevailing emotion as we’ve been jolted from an unprecedented decade plus long bull market to a bear market this week with all major US stock indexes dropping more than 20% in a matter of weeks. For people who entered the job market in the 2000’s, they may have never experienced a recession. And for those who have lived through past recessions like the Dot Com Bust in 2001 or the GFC in 2009, it definitely conjures up insecurities. 
  • Tactical crowdsourced ideas. You’ll receive great ideas that you may not have thought about as you’re busy dealing with more strategic decisions. To illustrate, if we’re going to do more webinars, do we have the appropriate amount and type of licenses for the webinar software, and for the people running the webinar, do we need to furnish them with better equipment at home to match what we have in the office? Or we have two new hires starting on Monday, and we know how important that onboarding experience is, so how do we ensure they have a great experience when they’re getting onboarded primarily in a video environment?
  • School Closures. Seattle didn’t close our public schools until today. And now they’re closed at least through April 24th. With a child in the Seattle Public School system, it is extremely disruptive for our entire family. Since the first case of COVID-19 virus was found in Seattle, it’s not surprising that we’re one of the first to close. But that has deep implications for the social benefits that schools provide, like free lunches. If your community begins experiencing more cases of COVID-19, you’ll want to pay particularly close attention to this especially if the nature of your workforce doesn’t lend well to a work from home environment. 
  • Gratefulness. I also saw how appreciative folks were regarding proactive communication. They know the situation is unique and rapidly evolving. Generally, when times are good, it’s easy to be a good leader. But it’s when times are challenging, that’s when true leaders step up. And I think the team values and recognizes leaders who lean in.
  • Empathy. Finally one area that I didn’t expect was the empathy people showed for others. This included their co-workers in other departments, their customers, and their suppliers who they rely on. It was touching to see this positivity emerge when times are difficult. And this is surely an area that I will not overlook when sharing the results back with the team.

This is a challenging time for everyone, and Bob Glazer summed it up well in his post titled “Steady Hands:”

During a crisis, leaders have the difficult and opposing responsibilities of keeping their constituents and teams informed, while also compelling them to remain calm and focused on solutions. While some leaders are excelling at this, others are exacerbating the situation through contradictions, false claims, and a lack of cohesive strategy. [recommend reading full post]

I know that the upcoming weeks and months will be full of unknowns and challenges, which only serves to amplify the wake leaders leave. Personally, my commitment is to continually communicate as transparently as possible as the situation evolves, address my people’s questions, and support them as best possible. I definitely don’t have the monopoly on best practices or great ideas, so please feel free to reach out and share what you’re doing and how your team is responding as we’re on this journey together to make employees happier while keeping them safe and healthy.

 

To happier employees,

David Niu

Founder of TINYpulse

David Niu

David Niu

March 13, 2020

 

 

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