How to Cultivate Courageous Leadership in Challenging Times

April 1, 2020

Two Essential Methods for Rallying Your Company with Thoughtfulness and Purpose

As we move into the next phase of fighting the spread of COVID-19, many governors and mayors have issued “stay at home” orders. As business leaders, we must rise above the steady drumbeat of negative news and give our employees hope of a better future!

Below, I share two helpful practices that you should immediately embrace in your company. While you should already be engaged in lighter versions of these under normal circumstances, I recommend being extra intentional with them during this time.

Remember: desperate times don’t call for desperate measures – they call for dedicated leadership.

1. OVER-Communicate!

Communicating to employees is difficult enough during normal times. But during these very challenging and unclear times, employees need to hear from their leaders. Often.

When I was a first-time CEO, I was fortunate to have as my chairman someone who took a company from a startup to a corporation worth more than $4 billion. His name is Jimmy Treybig, and his company was Tandem Computers. Jimmy once told me, “You know when you have communicated your message enough when employees start to repeat back your exact phrases and talk the way you talk.” Now, that was a challenge!

To complicate this matter further, many of us are now running virtual companies where our employees are working from home. This means we need to be clearer and more intentional with our communication than ever before. You should take these three steps to effectively over-communicate.

1.     Take the “Jimmy Treybig Challenge!” Share with your employees to the point that they can give your speech for you.

2.     Each department should hold a daily huddle over video conference. Your rule of thumb for meeting length is “one minute per person, not to exceed 15 minutes.” The agenda should be the same every day, and it’s just three items long:

What’s up? Each person shares very specifically what’s up in the next 24 hours (between today’s and tomorrow’s huddle). The idea is to let people detect conflicts, conflicted agendas, and missed opportunities immediately. Updates should relate to key activities, meetings, decisions, etc. It should notbe a recitation of their daily calendar.

What’s the daily metric? Verbalize one metric or data point the team wants visibility into for that day. These metrics can and may change over time. The point is to have the team look for patterns and trends that will give you a jump during your daily discussions. You as a leader may be getting this information in writing, but I’ve found that verbalizing to the team makes it easier for them to absorb.

Where are you stuck? This is the most important agenda item. You want members of the team to bring up the constraints, concerns and roadblocks that could prevent them from having a productive next 24 hours. As a leader, you need to see the patterns of “stucks” to understand what underlying issues must be addressed. There are a couple of reasons why I consider this last part of the agenda crucial:

-There is something powerful in simply verbalizing – for the whole group to hear – your fears, your struggles, and your concerns.

-You want to focus your team’s energy on breaking through constraints.  

3.     Communicate weekly with your employees. Do this in real time over video conference. Be candid, but also give them hope and reason to believe why your organization will survive. Tell them what the company is doing, because in the absence of information, they will assume the worst. Share stories about employees going above and beyond. Leave sufficient time to answer their questions. Also, get their input – we’ll discuss this further with tip #2 below. Record the meeting to allow employees who were unable to attend to view it. Depending on your situation, you should find a regular rhythm to have similar conversations with customers and investors.

2. Harness Your Employees’ Collective Intelligence

In the book Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, Ed unveiled one of the key management tools which helped Pixar, the animation powerhouse, score 14 box office hits in a row.

A hallmark of a healthy culture is when people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms.

The decision-making of senior leadership was more effective when they drew on the collective knowledge and unvarnished opinions of the larger group. Candor is the key to successful collaboration. A lack of candor leads to dysfunctional environments.

So how did Pixar management ensure that every working group, department, and the company at large embraced candor? By putting mechanisms in place that explicitly say it is valuable. One of Pixar's key mechanisms is the “Braintrust,” which they rely upon to push toward excellence and root out mediocrity. It is their primary delivery system for straight talk.

A basic operating principle of the Braintrust is: “People who take on complicated creative projects can get lost, hence the need to harness the collective intelligence of the group and not try to solve the problem by yourself.” The Braintrust is not foolproof, but according to Catmull, “When we get it right, the results are phenomenal.”

Putting the Stockdale Paradox into Practice

While listening to a webinar given by Deb Gabor, author of the book Irrational Loyalty, I was recently reminded of Jim Collin’s “Stockdale Paradox.” As discussed in his book Good to Great, it’s an excellent example of how you can put collective intelligence into immediate action.

You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties,

AND at the same time,

You must confront the brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

James Stockdale was a US Navy Vice Admiral and aviator awarded the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War. He was captured and spent eight gruesome years as a POW in Vietnam. After he escaped, he explained how he survived and why both pure optimists and pure pessimists were the first ones to die in the camp.

Dr. Dennis Charney, a psychiatrist, stated the following:

“The Stockdale Paradox really defines the optimism that is most important in becoming a resilient person and that is, when you're faced with a challenge or a trauma, you look at that challenge objectively. You might make the assessment, 'I'm in really big trouble.' You have a realistic assessment of what you're facing. On the other hand, you have the attitude and the confidence to say, 'But I will prevail. I'm in a tough spot, but I will prevail.' That is the optimism that relates to resilience.”

I believe business leaders can adapt this principle for these challenging times. Each department in your company and the leadership team should complete this exercise today and then compare results:

1.    Review your organization’s Core Purpose (why you and your employees get out of bed in the morning and why your customers care) and Core Values (handful of rules that you and your employees live by every day). Are they still valid? If not, what’s changed?

2.    Identify all the brutal facts of your reality.

3.    Review each brutal fact through the lens of your Core Purpose and Core Values. Determine if there is anything you can do to overcome that brutal fact or whether you just have to deal with it.

4.    For each item where you can do something, develop a plan that includes the owner, team and timeframe to complete.

5.    Begin execution on the step above and add it to your weekly employee communication meeting mentioned above.

Are you interested in learning more about how you can become a more courageous leader during these challenging times? Reach out to me today, and I will lead your executive team through a free one-hour video session on how to effectively over-communicate or walk you through the Collective Intelligence exercise.