The current pandemic has forced us all to adapt, but adaptability, by its very nature, can be difficult to boil down into simple tricks or to-do lists. It involves listening, learning, taking stock, and being flexible. Still, certain frameworks and principles can help guide business leaders as they work to transform their businesses in the face of crisis.
I believe there are four areas leaders should currently be focused on and will explore here. These areas all overlap, and many principles involving the current crisis apply to more than one area. Let’s dive in.
During any crisis, the first concern should be supporting your customers. Listening to customers is hopefully already the norm for your organization. If it’s not, the pandemic represents a chance to make it the new baseline. It’s important to constantly engage with customers: to unpack what type of activities they perform using your products, what environment they operate in, and what type of interaction they have with their peers and other employees and colleagues. I usually call it a contextual inquiry: Go sit by your customers and see how they use your products. Of course, in a remote world, that’s not possible.
Instead, proactively reach out to customers and ask them what challenges they are facing. When it comes to actually addressing those pain points through technology, creativity is key. That may mean going outside your normal paradigm or comfort zone. For instance, my company has held some virtual summits with customers to get real-time feedback.
By and large, my takeaway is that customers aren’t craving new product capabilities at the moment; they simply want products that are available and secure, especially as employees adapt to telework. Customers want platforms to work seamlessly via their VPNs and other remote mechanisms. At the same time, they want support.
Of course, you won’t be able to properly support customers if your own employees aren’t on solid ground. And right now, just about everyone is concerned about the future and their careers.
The solution is similar to the advice for being more customer-focused: Spend some informal time with your employees and listen to them. For instance, I often ask employees in one-on-ones things like: How are you feeling? What are some other deep concerns that I can address as a leader? That level of personal engagement is critical to driving motivation.
The other side of the coin is communication. Be honest about the challenges the company is going through — the progress being made, the wins, the accomplishments, the risks, and so on. Share both accomplishments and challenges while also instilling hope. Remind employees that you are working on something that’s going beyond this crisis so they stay focused.
Part of what you should be communicating is the company’s long-term strategy. Of course, in order to communicate it, you must first have it! You should also take what you learned from listening to customers and employees and use it to prioritize your strategic investments and innovations.
Additionally, this is a great opportunity for technology executives to focus on some of the issues they have kept on the back burner, like automation, DevOps, driving efficiencies, and technical debt. Take this time to invest in projects that can drive additional business outcomes at scale. For instance, we are pushing hard on moving 100% to the cloud. We were already on our way, but we want to push the initiative across the finish line because that is going to help us drive innovation, which is going to move the needle in the marketplace.
Last but not least is the importance of self-leadership. Leaders have to consider themselves as instruments. Under normal circumstances, you are a captain steering the ship. Now, you have to hyper-empower your employees to learn, iterate, and make quick decisions to meet the rapidly changing environment we live and work in. It’s no longer just about steering; it’s also about keeping the ship afloat — and that cannot be done by one person. It needs to be a team effort. You must constantly motivate and encourage your team to get creative and take some risks without jeopardizing business outcomes.
Many of the principles outlined here are largely intertwined, both with each other and with management principles that apply even when there’s no global pandemic. But Covid-19 has brought them even further into focus. Take this time to really listen to customers and employees alike, invest in things that will move your business forward both today and in the future, and empower those around you. Doing this will help your business be more adaptable and resilient and position it to gain both market share and momentum.