When to Quarantine Your Leadership Communications. And When to Speak Up.

"It is nearly impossible to say the wrong thing when you’re doing the right thing."


The answer to the first: never. The answer to the second: now.

Seems straightforward, right? Basic business communications and emergency preparedness.

But nothing is as it seems anymore. The coronavirus pandemic has affected every organization in every sector, every household, every community we serve. And no matter how robust our crisis and continuity plans may be, COVID-19 is propelling us into uncharted waters.

We all know the fundamentals of crisis communications. They are tenets that we reach for and rely upon during tough times: Communicate early and often. Be transparent. Demonstrate empathy. Be an honest broker.

Yet this is a moment (turned into months, turned into an unforeseeable future) when leaders can and should do more. So here are a few thoughts to consider as we lead our way through this new far-from-normal state.

Put people first. As a leader, you have lots of stakeholders (by which we mean people) depending on you. Employees, partners, customers, vendors, and community notables. People looking to you for information, guidance, and a steady hand at the helm. During typical times, it may seem like they all need something different. Right now, they all need the same thing: you.

Employees need to hear compassion, concern and what you’re doing to keep them safe and secure. Customers need to hear compassion, concern and what you’re doing to keep them safe and secure. The communities you operate in need to hear compassion, concern and what you’re doing to keep them safe and secure.

Yep, there’s a theme here – a consistent refrain that reminds us that we are all in this together, and that nothing is more important that the safety and wellbeing of the people we’re privileged to serve.

There will be theme variations, of course. Suppliers will need detailed shipping and warehousing and delivery information. Employees want to know about operating and staffing decisions, job security and the availability of personal protection gear. Customers want to know your plans for closing, cleaning and sanitation, and alternative pickup options.

But the takeaway is people first, safety first.

Put employees first and foremost. Sure, you are accountable to lots and lots of people. Many brandish impressive titles: magnate, mogul, muckety-muck. But your most important constituency are employees, the in-the-trenches teammates who have your back from the front lines. They’re also your community ambassadors, industry champions and media messengers. So, keep them informed, and help them understand the context and complexity of what you’re facing together. Update them regularly – ideally daily, but no less than every other day – and communicate via various media like email, company intranet, blogs, video, and phone messaging.

Put people to work – and acknowledge their efforts. I know … very few of us are working normal hours under normal conditions. We’re at home, on leave or furloughed; anxious to return to routine. But we all want to DO something and contribute to the cause. Invite your employees’ ideas and innovative thinking. Task them with staying safe and looking out for one another. Recognize their dedication, ingenuity, hard work and community outreach.

While you’re at it, acknowledge the extraordinary efforts of those outside your organization – first responders, health care heroes, delivery personnel, teachers, grocery store staff, the men and women maintaining vital infrastructure. We are in this together, and good leaders coalesce and commend the collective.

Speak up. Even when the solution isn’t clear. Executives are born problem-solvers. They fix things. Troubleshoot. They don’t like to come to the podium empty-handed. They are most comfortable talking about a problem when they have a solution to offer.

Here’s the thing, though: there’s no ready solution to the COVID crisis. No vaccine. No clear understanding of transmission and tracking. No magic timeline that tells us when, or if, we can resume business as usual.

Leaders must share what they know when they know it. And show that they care when they know very little. You can’t shy away from speaking up for fear of not having a fix. Your constituents are anxious, stressed and uncertain. They need empathy more than answers, and connection during this period of extreme isolation.

Step up. With agility and speed. Here’s something else I’ve noticed about business leaders. They want certainty … fail-safes … rigorous testing and tire-kicking – all admirable goals. But extreme times call for extreme (and extremely fast) measures.

We need leaders who are willing to adapt in real time – turning high-end fashion houses into mass manufacturers of masks, gowns and hospital scrubs … cosmetic companies willing to switch production from perfume to hand sanitizer … tech-savvy sorts to develop 3-D printing solutions … and scientists formulating, testing and bringing treatments to market – ASAP.

We need agility in deployment of solutions. And in decision-making around policy, procedures, protocol, and personnel. Deliberations that a few months ago might have taken years of committee head-scratching and hemming and hawing are now being fast-tracked. Decisions to pay hourly workers who can’t come to work … cover insurance and antibody testing … forego non-payment utility shut-offs … provide free housing to first responders and nurses and doctors. Real life examples of real-time response.

To use an overused business metaphor, we are building the airplane in flight. And you, our trusted leader, have dual roles to fill: you are the pilot steering us forward, and the flight attendant assuring us of safe passage. Use the intercom – and let us know where we’re headed.

It is nearly impossible to say the wrong thing when you’re doing the right thing. Business leaders strive to be politically correct. They don’t want to offend or upset. I’ve heard a few express concern about whether it is ‘too soon’ to talk about practical matters, or ‘insensitive’ to speak of business matters in the midst of a pandemic. At the risk of sounding insensitive myself, I believe there is little offense to be taken – and much good to be gained by engaging.

Let’s face it: reality is hitting us upside the head like a two-by-four. There’s no denying the ostrich egg lump on our collective skull, and no need to soft-pedal or stall salient conversations. If you are talking about your response to coronavirus, how you’re protecting your employees and public – you’re doing good. If you don’t have all the answers but want to reach out and say so, you’re doing good. And if you’re struggling and making hard choices – cutting shifts and closing stores – that’s fair, too. And good. Speak your truth.

Humility and humanity. One of the first tenets of coaching leaders through a crisis revolves around humility and being accountable. In cases of oil spills or industrial explosions, spinach contaminated with e coli or faulty scaffolding on a construction site – we can point fingers, and leaders of character can stand up and deliver a moving mea culpa.

But COVID-19 is unique in its criminal/crisis profile. There’s no smoking gun, no fingerprints, no surveillance tape. No one is to blame. And no one is immune. So, while there is nothing easy about our current dilemma, being humble shouldn’t be hard.

What is hard is the scope of this crisis. It’s a beast, affecting not just your service area or sales territory, but the entire world and its 7.8 billion inhabitants. It’s got long, tangled tentacles – a health crisis that in turn has constricted how we live and interact; and an economic crisis choking our ability to work and earn and survive.

And so, we must all think more broadly than ever before. More creatively. Faster and more boldly. We need visionary leaders who reflect and act and engage on a global scale, while at the same time focusing intently on local concerns and the change within their control.

We need leaders who are authentically human – and champions of humanity. And we need them to step up and speak up.


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