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How to lead your employees through a crisis: CEOs say start by doing these 4 things

Fast Company and Facebook partnered for a virtual series on leadership. Here’s what three CEOs had to say on leading in tough times.

How to lead your employees through a crisis: CEOs say start by doing these 4 things
[Photo: Luke Stackpoole/Unsplash; OpenClipart-Vectors/Pixabay]

When the coronavirus pandemic crashed onto the shores of the United States in March, it set us all adrift. And in the months that followed, with the country collectively treading water, business leaders faced the challenge of at least seeming to know how to navigate the unprecedented waters of the global crisis.

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Since then, much has been lost, but much has been gained—in experience, in knowledge, and in resolve to weather whatever storm comes next. To share some of these insights, Fast Company and Facebook partnered up for a virtual series on leadership, titled “Growth in Crisis.” The first installment brought together three business executives—Kara Goldin, founder and CEO of Hint; Jeff Lawson, cofounder and CEO of Twilio; and Kristin Peck, CEO of Zoetis—to discuss what they’ve learned at the helm of their companies.

Here are four key takeaways:

1. Think flexibly

“We didn’t predict the pandemic,” says Goldin, “but having options in times of crisis, as a leader, is so critical to be able to pull levers when one is stuck.”

When the pandemic struck, it disrupted supply chains in grocery stores nationwide. Water company Hint had massive inventories of product while vendors were left with empty shelves and no viable system of restocking. At that point, Goldin says, “We had a choice. We could either say, ‘What’s the problem, why isn’t our product getting stocked?’ or we could say, ‘We have product in our warehouse—we’re just going to ship it to you guys and fix the problem immediately.'”

When the company offered up that solution, Goldin says, 50% of its retailers took it.

2. Communicate empathetically

“Leaders should be willing to be vulnerable, and have two-way communication,” says Peck. During the pandemic, she says, it was important for employees to feel that their bosses understood their worries and needs. “I would send out weekly letters, being authentic about the struggles that I was having as a working parent with two kids home, and asking them what was on their minds—and truly listening to what they said.”

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As a leader, “You’ve got two ears and one mouth—use them in that proportion,” says Lawson. “Lead with empathy. Drive purpose while understanding how your employees can achieve their goals—which in this case, is survival, and getting their families through this.”

3. Be ready to roll up your sleeves

As a company with an essential product, Goldin says her employees had to keep going into stores and warehouses throughout the pandemic. But she reworked their routes so that employees could stay closer to home—and then decided to take some routes herself.

“For me it was really, ‘Am I actually doing the right thing by not pulling these people out of the store?'” she says. And by being on the ground, she was able to see that there were some hours when the stores were less trafficked, when it would be safer to send in associates.

“I was leading, but I was also willing to jump in,” says Goldin. “I don’t think leadership today is about having all the answers, but employees expect to hear what you think. Leadership is bringing yourself into the picture, and not sitting in your glass castle.”

4. Lead with purpose

In managing through “the pandemic, or the social injustice, or the economic situation, knowing that what you do really matters, why it matters, and who it matters for really makes a difference,” says Peck, especially “if you want someone to go that extra mile—and not just stay at your company, but strive.”

For Peck, whose company Zoetis produces medicines and vaccines for pets and livestock, that meant not just discussing their purpose within animal health, but also within society, and “the values that our colleagues and our customers have.”

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For Lawson, whose company Twilio develops corporate cloud communication systems, he finds that “creative work is really enabled when employees can feel an intrinsic motivation,” as opposed to extrinsic motivation such as quarterly bonuses or head-patting.

“That intrinsic drive really comes from the sense that the work that you do is helping you have autonomy, mastery, purpose,” he says. As he describes it, autonomy is the sense that you are trusted to get something done, mastery is getting better at your craft, and purpose is feeling like you’re making a difference—for the company, for the consumer, or for the world as a whole.

“I think that’s a more modern sensibility,” says Lawson. “Now leaders, employees, and investors are asking, ‘Are we also building a stronger world around us?’ Fifty years ago you had companies dumping toxic waste into the environment, saying, ‘It’s not my problem.’ Now you’re starting to see people say, ‘Well actually—it is.'”

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