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Small Things Matter a Lot in a Crisis

From my notes this past week on the pandemic: Three things popped out as crucial to leadership. In and of themselves, they’re actually quite small and might seem obvious, but their impact can be truly significant and make a great difference to your colleagues — and their effectiveness.

How Can You Show Your Personal Commitment to Relationship?

It was my son’s birthday a few days ago. When I called to wish him a happy birthday, I could hear from his voice that under the circumstances, nothing felt special or celebratory. What he felt was what many of us are feeling: confusion, stress, frustration, and concern. But when I offered to bake him a birthday cake and asked what kind he’d like, his tone changed. He described a particular bakery cake that he’d loved all through his childhood. Our conversation evoked a kind of nostalgic pleasure, and gave us both something to look forward to.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to duplicate that desired cake exactly, but the finished product looked great anyway — a beautiful yellow layer cake slathered in fudgy frosting. (Recipes available upon request.) My husband and I drove the 35 minutes to our son’s house, and on the back porch, appropriately distanced, we ate big slices of it together.

My son felt acknowledged, special, and cared for. Everyone wants to feel that way. Showing your team members personal, individual attention will help them feel better and work better. How could you be in touch with each of them? Can you demonstrate your personal commitment to satisfying something that matters to them?

It might be as simple as helping them get comfortable about their most important priorities right now, or granting them forgiveness upfront for the delay in a deliverable while they’re homeschooling their kids. Or it could be showing compassion for their distress over a loved one’s illness, or asking savvy questions to help them figure their way out of a customer or operational problem. No doubt there’s something you can do for each member of your staff. Start with your direct reports, and consider the possibility of reaching out to the level below as well. It’s a special thing to have your boss’s boss show interest in your wellbeing.

Can You Clarify Rules That Everyone Should Know?

We got a voicemail from our village mayor, acknowledging that as the weather warms, more people will be out walking and riding bicycles. In addition to reinforcing the need to keep the appropriate distance while passing others, the mayor was clear and detailed about the rules of travel: Walkers should walk facing traffic, and cyclists should head in the same direction as car traffic. This is an old and well-established rule, but it’s one that many of our neighbors don’t seem to know — or at least they’re not honoring it.

So many of the rules of organizational life can seem apocryphal, passed down over time from supervisors and colleagues in a game of departmental telephone. Are there any rules you could restate so they’re clear and everyone knows what to do now, even if people were getting them wrong before?

You’ll know you’re confronting the need for clarification and concreteness if you find yourself facepalming over the thousandth incident of a particular kind of mistake. Examples might include how processing instructions are transferred between teams, what criteria should be used in certain kinds of decisions, or how much can be spent to expedite shipping customer orders.

Is There Data You Can Use to Point to a Brighter Future?

Germany seems to be doing an excellent job moving away from the worst ravages of Covid-19 and planning for re-entry into a more normal societal existence. Under Angela Merkel’s direction, a lot of investment and progress are being made in tangible, targeted testing and data collection. Germany’s goals seem to be to understand what has already happened by testing to see who has coronavirus antibodies, and to do prospective risk assessments so that individuals without access to the science don’t have to figure out what the next safe steps will be to move society back to reengagement.

Is there data you can use to do clearer assessments of how and why any aspect of your business has been successful, so you can replicate or enhance those successes? Are there trends that will help you determine the timing of necessary decisions? What about prototyping new forms of customer outreach and studying the results, or experimenting with different internal processes and assessing their varying levels of accuracy and efficiency?

Intentionally generating hard data and doing clear-eyed assessments will help keep everyone safe, confident, and together on path — even when the path itself may not be so clear. So why not do some outreach to your staff, make sure the rules of the road are well-defined, and show people the data that demonstrates why and how to take next steps?

We may never get back to whatever we’ve thought of as business as usual, but perhaps we can make our organizations better and stronger in the meantime.

Onward and upward —

LK

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