18 Tips Managers Can Use to Lead Through COVID’s Rising Waters

Ella Castle

Since March, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge has posted more than 80 stories and research papers on the topic of COVID-19, most targeted at managers and the new challenges they face. That’s a lot of information to digest. To that end, we went tip hunting to bring to you top ideas […]

Since March, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge has posted more than 80 stories and research papers on the topic of COVID-19, most targeted at managers and the new challenges they face. That’s a lot of information to digest. To that end, we went tip hunting to bring to you top ideas for managing through the pandemic. The topics: people and personal management, strategy, marketing, and organizational design.

PEOPLE AND PERSONAL MANAGEMENT

Tip: Guide your team to create new norms, protocols, and purpose.

Leaders need to hold a “working from home” relaunch to help their teams learn to reorient based on the new realities. While team launches set the course of a group at the moment it comes together, relaunches act as resets. The COVID-19 pandemic upending routines calls for relaunches to help leaders and team members understand how each member has been affected, figure out how to address concerns, and ultimately get everyone back on the same track to achieve team goals.

Team leaders should focus their relaunch in four key areas.

Revisit your shared purpose. A relaunch ensures that every team member understands and buys into the clear and specific goals that the team has been mobilized to accomplish.

Reassess available resources. The relaunch is a time to reexamine information, budgetary resources, and networks that will help the team advance its goals.

Understand members’ constraints. A relaunch is an ideal opportunity for each member to discuss their respective roles and how they have been contributing to team goals.

Reestablish norms. Most important, the relaunch is the time for team members to reevaluate how to conduct themselves and interact amid the changing circumstances.

To learn more, read It’s Time To Relaunch Your Remote Team

Tsedal Neely, Naylor Fitzhugh Professor of Business Administration.

Tip: Use COVID-19 as a time to reflect

Make time for introspection. The coronavirus represents a historic inflection point that is likely to forever change us, as did the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Use this period as an opportunity to take stock of your own life. Does your work reflect your values? Have you let some important relationships languish? Did you give up on a dream too soon? You’re not going to be a good business leader unless you know how to lead yourself.

In brief, don’t waste this moment for introspection, an opportunity for intense personal growth.

To learn more, read Fighting the COVID Blues: Advice from Business Research

Arthur C. Brooks, Arthur C. Patterson Faculty Fellow.

Tip: Attend to your physical and mental health

Flight attendants’ warning to “Put your own oxygen mask on first, before attempting to assist others” is a potent metaphor. In the blink of an eye, self-care for leaders of organizations has transformed from a feel-good nostrum to a strategic first priority.

Companies cannot afford to lose leadership right now: The blunt fact is that 40 percent of firms do not have a succession plan. Maintaining best practices around physical and mental health is not a luxury or a frill, but an essential aspect of risk management. CEOs and top management need to prioritize taking care of their own health. Boards need to persuade their leadership teams to make this a priority, nagging them like worried grandmothers and sending chicken soup to their home offices if that is what it takes.

Leaders also need to model self-care for their teams. Looking disheveled and exhausted in virtual meetings can rattle employees and weaken confidence. At the same time, strenuously projecting an image of pre-2020 normalcy and “business as usual” can be daunting and lead employees to hide their own struggles.

To learn more, read What Leaders Can Do to Fight the COVID Fog

Boris Groysberg, Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration.

Tip: Cultivate the seven “C” attributes shared by effective coronavirus leaders.

Calm. Your folks, your employees, your customers, your suppliers, are going to be looking to you as a leader to project a sense of calm through this difficult, uncertain situation.

Confidence. You have to be calm, but not still-water calm. You have to project confidence that you’re going to be able to see this through successfully, with a minimum amount of hurt to the company, but also to all of the stakeholders who are relying on your leadership to get them through the difficult days and months ahead.

Communication. You have to relentlessly communicate, communicate, communicate. This is to avoid rumors developing that muddy the waters.

Collaboration. This is a time for you to call on the resources, the capabilities of all of your employees, all of your team members, and bring them together in taskforces, sub-taskforces, and potentially have a role for everyone in which they feel they can contribute to overcoming the uncertainty, overcoming the crisis.

Community. All of us live in communities. so it’s extremely important that we set an example, model behaviors that are community friendly and supportive.

Compassion is extremely important at this time. We may rise to the occasion if we’re fortunate to have a good team around us, but there are many people in our organizations who are depending upon us, who are not necessarily that resilient. Compassion at a time of crisis is a very important manifestation of leadership.

Cash. The most obvious commercial C of the 7 Cs is Cash. Whatever you can do to conserve cash is going to be critical, because that’s what’s going to determine whether your employees are going to be paid next week.

To learn more, read 7 Leadership Principles for Managing in the Time of Coronavirus

John A. Quelch, Charles Edward Wilson Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus.

Tip: Small talk works big wonders

Another factor that workplaces can focus on right now is creating opportunities for informal conversations. Small talk can play an important role in workplace happiness —and these casual interactions are the first to “go missing” in the virtual environment. Establishing opportunities for informal “water cooler” conversations could go a long way in promoting belonging.

To learn more, read 6 Ways to Support COVID-Weary Employees

Ashley Whillans, assistant professor of business administration.

Tip: Learn from what other managers are doing successfully

While we are still far from knowing what constitutes a “best practice,” there is already a great deal of experimentation emerging globally. To provide an early report of these emerging approaches, over the past month, we (virtually) talked with more than 50 “resilient” businesses across a variety of countries and sectors.

The results of this exploration show that managers are trying to ensure safety and maintain profitability with tremendous energy and creativity. While specific tactics vary by company, they share common underlying principles:

  • Businesses try to learn from noisy signals and quickly adapt their activities to newly emerging information.
  • They actively cooperate with external stakeholders (including, in some instances, their competitors) to pool and disseminate information and safeguard the stability of their ecosystem.
  • They rapidly adapt and sometimes shift their value proposition to reflect ever-evolving demand conditions and discover new growth opportunities.
  • They adapt their approach toward HR management to preserve business viability while maintaining employees’ safety and well-being.
  • They support all these activities through a conscious and proactive effort to be as effective and clear as possible in their communication to both internal and external stakeholders.

To learn more, read Restarting Under Uncertainty: Managerial Experiences from Around the World

Raffella Sadun, professor of business administration.

STRATEGY

Tip: Confront unknown unknowns in your strategic planning

The term VUCA originated in the US War College to describe situations that are volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. In this world, “unknown unknowns” can emerge that place teams in territory that models cannot predict. COVID-19 events deliver surprises daily to many organizations, so the decision-making process that responds to rapid change is as important as the decision itself. Agile leaders promote a move in mindsets that overcomes volatility by:

  • Making plans Visible for all via clear and transparent communication.
  • Embracing a program that is Unrelenting and iterative.
  • Setting Concentrated and focused steps to serve as a guiding set of goals.
  • Driving Action by accepting uncertainty as the new normal.
  • Embracing Agility and an operating model that focuses on making decisions in a rapid and iterative manner.

To learn more, read 7 Successful Battle Strategies to Beat COVID-19

Euvin Naidoo, Senior Lecturer of Business Administration.

Tip: Protect the core business and pivot to new opportunities

The COVID-19 outbreak has created a period of high stress for individuals and companies alike. It is also, however, an opportunity to examine current business practices in order to increase long-term operational efficiency and competitiveness, as well as to innovate for the sake of surviving now and thriving later. It is a time to protect the core business and pivot to new opportunities, or, in other words, to exploit and explore.

To achieve your goals, consider leveraging cross-functional teams, employing creative exercises, adjusting expectations and deliverables, supporting an agile enterprise and generating customer insights.

To learn more, read The COVID Two-Step for Leaders: Protect and Pivot

Boris Groysberg, Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration.

MARKETING

Tip: Tailor your brand stories to the new reality.

Which types of brand stories should companies tell?

After KFC was chastised by the U.K. Advertising Standards Authority for what it deemed inappropriate ads promoting the brand’s “finger licking good” behavior, many brands quickly turned off existing creative and searched for new brand stories to tell that better reflected the new cultural environment. Consumers largely agreed with this decision, with 77 percent claiming that brands in their marketing communications should not ignore or turn a deaf ear to the crisis, but rather make sure to recognize it and acknowledge the impact it was having on people’s lives.

Consumers also warned against brands taking advantage of the crisis. Consumers’ survey responses indicated that brand storytelling should focus on providing real solutions to the crisis rather than hard-core selling, with the request that brands work to connect their products and services to the alleviation of crisis-related suffering and challenges. 54 percent of surveyed consumers claimed they were ignoring all new product communications during the crisis, unless the product in question was specifically designed to help them with serious pandemic-related life challenges. Communications that were perceived to benefit the brand more than they benefited its consumers or ones that offered frivolous solutions rather than real ones raised consumers’ eyebrows, while programs that helped the brand’s employees or suppliers were applauded, such as Miller Lite’s virtual tip jar for bartenders or Yum Brands $1,000 bonuses to its Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC general managers during mandated restaurant closures and emergency medical relief fund for employees diagnosed with COVID-19.

To learn more, read What Customers Need to Hear from You During the COVID Crisis

Jill J. Avery, senior lecturer of business Administration, C. Roland Christensen Distinguished Management Educator.

Tip: Reward your loyals

Firms can introduce special offerings to customers requiring special considerations because of their risk level, creating more loyal customers for the longer term. The Knot Worldwide is providing financial assistance to its vendors (like caterers, flower companies, and apparel brands) to help them get through hard times. Netflix set up a $100 million fund to help creatives like actors, producers, and writers whose jobs are affected by COVID—making Netflix the likely preferred destination for future work by creatives. Walmart is paying suppliers more quickly. Costco, Whole Foods, and Dollar General introduced shopping hours for senior citizens while Woolworths Supermarket in Australia closed a number of stores with less traffic to better enable deliveries to seniors, those with disabilities, and those in quarantine or self-isolation.

To learn more, read Your Customers Have Changed. Here’s How to Engage Them Again

Rohit Deshpande, Sebastian S. Kresge Professor of Marketing.

ORGANIZATIONAL DESIGN

Tip: Use technology to scale your organization to current conditions

An old canard applies to today’s environment: Nobody notices information technology until something breaks. This crisis required rapid and large reallocation of modern information technology, with particular links to communications. Some of it broke.

The best organizations have had the ability to expand existing capacity because the technology did not break under the strain. They had a robust configuration that enabled new purposes, new software deployments, and new coordinated routines across teams.

The best can use this as an opportunity to experiment and learn where technology can deliver service or enable more flexible work arrangements.

To learn more, read Are Digital Organizations Better at Overcoming COVID?

Shane M. Greenstein is the Martin Marshall Professor of Business Administration and co-chair of the HBS Digital Initiative.

Tip: Expand your information sources

Ensure you are considering all available, relevant information but are not overwhelmed by information overload.

Being clear about your organization’s strategy will provide focus to information-gathering and a roadmap for decision-making. Even then, many decisions will have to be made with imperfect data. Flexibility is important. Revisit your conclusions and pivot as needed. Utilizing short-term KPIs (30-day, or so) is one way of monitoring decisions and assessing performance.

This is a period of continuous learning. The lessons may be unchosen and unwanted, but they can be leveraged to guide future actions. It is important not to let them go to waste. Firms should ideally emerge from this crisis sturdier, wiser, and better prepared for future crises and events.

To learn more, read It’s Time to Reset Decision-Making in Your Organization

Boris Groysberg, Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration.

Tip: New employees need rapid connections to key people

The hiring manager should be in close contact with the new employee throughout the hiring and onboarding process, as opposed to outsourcing most of these processes to HR. Once the staffer is hired, the hiring manager should communicate the news to the rest of the organization so their new colleagues can welcome them virtually. As soon as the employee begins, the hiring manager should provide a list of all the key people the employee should connect with in their early days on the job, including direct reports, a mentor, key peers, and representatives from other key functions. The hiring manager should see to it that videoconferencing meetings with all these parties are scheduled early on. The hiring manager should v-meet (virtual meeting) daily with the new hire at first, and then move these check-ins to two or three times per week once a relationship is established. The hiring manager should also perform a more formal check-in at the end of the first week and at the end of the first month.

To learn more, read How Remote Work Changes What We Think About Onboarding

Boris Groysberg, Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration.

Tip: Shorten selling cycles

The crisis demonstrates, painfully, the importance of cash. The selling cycle is usually the biggest driver of cash out and cash in: Accounts payable accrue during selling, and accounts receivable are mainly determined in most firms by what’s sold at what price and how fast.

In surviving and recovering from a crisis, increasing close rates, the efficiency of a sales model, and its segment focus are strategic issues, not only sales management tasks. Consider: when commerce resumes, what’s the impact on your business from shortening selling cycles and accelerating time-to-cash by one week, two weeks, or more? If you don’t know, find out now and work to shorten ramp-up time and increase productivity in your sales team after the crisis.

To learn more, read
Predictions, Prophets, and Restarting Your Business

Frank V. Cespedes, MBA Class of 1973 Senior Lecturer of Business Administration.

Tip: Determine if COVID complications affect career development in your organization

COVID-19 is claiming an unexpected career toll among scientific researchers, and particularly on women, new research shows. If you are female, have young children, or work in a lab, you are more likely to feel the career-crunching effects dealt by the pandemic.

A well-documented gender gap in science is becoming increasingly apparent across professions worldwide, for all kinds of working women as the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc in the United States and around the world.

Leadership should consider childcare infrastructure at each educational and other organizations when crafting reopening plans, both as the pandemic drags on and well into the recovery period.

The pandemic gives university leaders a chance to examine whether the differences between male and female researchers should play a bigger role.

To learn more, read
COVID’s Surprising Toll on Careers of Women Scientists

Karim Lakhani, Charles Edward Wilson Professor of Business Administration. Kyle R. Myers, assistant professor of business administration.

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