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Why The Wartime CEO Doesn’t Work

Sometimes, no matter how much you plan, something unexpected abruptly changes your world of work forever. As a leader, your employees, clients and vendors are depending on you to bring your business through this tough time.

I can’t tell you how many founders/CEOs, at the start of this pandemic, told me, "It’s time to be a wartime CEO." This reflects that you as a leader have to be fundamentally different and change who you are. That’s just not the case. The best type of leader you can be is your authentic self. The worst thing you can do for your team, company and stakeholders is to pretend to be someone you’re not.

Yes, you’ll need to adjust your actions and strategy based on this new reality, but that doesn’t mean you have to change who you are. Instead, follow these steps to give your business the best chance to survive and thrive.

1. Start with empathy.

Acknowledge the reality with your team, communicating early and often so they don’t fill the silence with their own stories and fears. Let the team know it’s OK to be feeling whatever they are feeling. Be open, honest and direct with them, sharing your thoughts and feelings, too.

It’s up to you to show up for your people, to listen to them in times of crisis and recognize that everyone handles stress, change and loss differently without judging one way or another. It’s critical to allow your people the space to feel and be seen and heard.

2. Focus on what you can control.

When the crisis hits, you’re not sure what the impact will be — your mind spins with questions of layoffs, cost cutting and all the "what ifs" of an uncertain market.

For me, this was the first week of quarantine. It was overwhelming, scary and a bit manic. My head filled with worry and stress about the future. Instead of focusing on what I couldn’t control — like how long this will last, what clients will drop off and what prospects I’ll lose — I chose to focus on what I could control.

I dove into our financial analysis and models to assess medium, bad and worst-case scenarios for projected sales, accounts receivable, expenses, etc. In reforecasting our projections, I was now empowered with an updated model of the economic situation so I could confidently plan and make educated decisions on cost cutting, layoffs, furloughs, etc. This method is what Tim Ferris calls "fear setting," where you look at the worst-case scenario and plan from there. The process took me from feeling scared to centered and focused on what we needed to do next.

3. Reset your goals.

Once I did my fear setting and reforecasting, it was time to reset our company goals. The biggest misstep I’ve seen businesses make is to forge forward with the same goals they set at the start of the year. I don’t care if those goals took you months to create and align on; this is a new reality, which requires a new set of goals. Think about it like starting the year anew. You have to set goals for this new year.

From there, cascade those new goals down to team members so they can let go of their previous plans and start to set attainable and relevant goals. This list will allow you and your team to focus on what you need to say no to and what you'll say yes to. This is the new starting point for your team. It will give them focus, direction and clarity for how to move forward amid uncertainty.

4. Be vulnerable.

Our natural tendency is to keep the bad news guarded, to protect our people from it, thereby presenting a strong and brave front. That’s the exact opposite of what we need to do. Secrecy and uncertainty create an atmosphere of fear, rumors and helplessness. People want to know what the future holds for them — and they deserve to know and to have the opportunity to help turn things around.

A client of mine just went through a round of layoffs and salary reductions. In their all-hands meeting, they shared their financial position. They had a sizable hole to dig out of. My client feared losing people after sharing their reality. Instead, the next two days were filled with team members reaching out and asking how they could help, doubling down on their commitment to the organization.

When you are vulnerable and real with your people, it gives them the opportunity to buy in at an even deeper level to you and the company. They become a part of the solution instead of an obstacle to overcome.

5. Invest in the future.

With the prospect of decreasing revenue in an uncertain economy, our first instinct is to cut as much as possible and hold cash. This generally translates into budget cuts for expenses such as marketing, research and development and training for your people.

You have to balance the realities of your cash situation today with the long-term vision for your business. Marketing, product development and leadership training are all long-term strategies that can be the reason your company thrives and comes out of the crisis stronger than before.

For example, as you move forward in this new normal, you'll need your people to perform. The manager is the key driver of a high-performing team. Companies with great managers see 48% higher profits than they would with average managers.

Crises are inevitable. It’s not how to avoid them; rather, it’s about how you show up and the choices you make when faced with tough decisions. Instead of pretending to be someone you think you need to be, stand with confidence in who you are, and work through the steps needed to empower your team and organization.

Originally published in Forbes on August 5, 2020.


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