Guiding through unclear and emergency situations



When an employee is having trouble or when the way forward seems uncertain, as a leader, our initial inclination is to try to fix the problem by providing guidance based on our experience. However, in situations of genuine ambiguity and danger, such as the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, our experience frequently falls short. We need to use a different set of tools in these situations, some of which we may already have had but were unaware of. We had to create some others on the spot while guiding those who looked to us for guidance.

Answers we don’t have.

There have undoubtedly been periods of significant challenge in my career as a senior leader in the HR sector. As all of us in leadership experience occasionally, there were days when I felt out of control. Sometimes the actual circumstance was unusual or expensive. As an illustration, consider the choice to drastically cut benefits that people relied on during the 2008 crisis in an effort to save jobs. Or informing a group of people in a room that the tasks some of them had been doing for years were no longer available because technology had transformed the nature of how we work.

I like to think that my previous experiences gave me the confidence and pattern-building skills I required to lead my team through ambiguity with speed. But as Chief People Officer, neither I nor any of my coworkers in a leadership position could have been ready for the way the world would change as a result of a pandemic. Information—often contradicting or confusing—comes at you from several directions in an unexpected scenario, and with it, the urgency to make crucial decisions swiftly.

In the early stages of the COVID-19 problem, Sprout, like many businesses, had to decide when to switch to working remotely and how to protect our employees while we were still in the office. Were we too quick to act? Not fast enough? What actions did we need to do to ensure the safety of our workers while also making sure that our customers continue to receive the caliber of service we are devoted to offering?

When we are still looking for the correct solutions and are still very early in our grasp of what this uncertainty implies for our world and our future, it seems premature to talk about lessons learned from a crisis.

But during the past few months, a couple things have become incredibly evident to me. There will be situations where we can't use our prior knowledge to steer the direction of our teams. However, such a high level of uncertainty fosters greater invention, learning, and perspective.

There are techniques we as leaders may use to lead through uncertainty in the future by including these three elements. Some are brand-new, while others are simply waiting to be used.

Accept the influence of reframing

In only three days, Sprout moved from banning all in-office meetings to barring all non-essential business travel to temporarily closing all of our offices. COVID-19 is undoubtedly a VUCA environment, and to say that it is would be an understatement.

The term "VUCA" (Volatile, Uncertainty, Complex, and Ambiguous) was first used to describe the post-Cold War environment by the US Army War College in the late 1980s. It is a means of defining a scenario that is rapidly changing or heated. Since then, it has been utilized as a strategy and leadership tool to aid firms in navigating tumultuous, frequently unpredictable conditions.

In a period of high uncertainty, it is simple to understand how those ideas apply. Bill George, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School and a former chair and CEO of Medtronic, reframed the idea into VUCA 2.0: Vision, Understanding, Courage, and Adaptability, which is an even more potent tool. Same four letters, but a different perspective that offers practical tools for guiding our teams forward.

Ryan Barretto, SVP of Global Sales at Sprout, used VUCA 2.0 in his first Zoom call with our Sales and Success team after making the switch to working from home. Ryan drew on his own expertise in managing through previous downturns and highlighted businesses that were better off as a result of the decisions they made during a crisis. He issued a challenge to his staff, asking them to consider six months in the future, identify the things they wish they had done at the time, and then actually accomplish them using the hashtag #NoRegrets.

By using VUCA 2.0, you're not avoiding the harsh realities of the scenario; rather, you're giving people a fresh perspective from which to assess the problem as it stands. Ryan accomplished this when he clearly acknowledged the challenges that our team members and consumers would face and encouraged his team to focus on using their combined strengths of grit, urgency, and empathy.

Invest some time in rigorous prioritizing.

The term "triage," which is frequently used in a medical setting, derives from the French verb trier, which means "sort, separate, and select." In times of ambiguity, leaders must swiftly evaluate their priorities to determine what is urgent now and focus on those goals to give their teams clarity. The values of an organization—which were often developed during a much calmer period—become crucial triage tools at this point.

Being profoundly caring is one of our main principles. This principle is centered on four groups: our clients, employees, community members, and families. Our decision-making has been based on these four groups throughout the crisis. Our top goal when it comes to product outreach has been developing the tools and solutions that will help our clients interact with their stakeholders. On the front of customer outreach, we've placed an emphasis on sending timely notifications and giving clients the support they require.

Helping everyone remain connected and feel supported is our top focus for both our teams and our families. To achieve this, we have given our team's mental health and wellness first priority. We have also increased our reliance on communication and on important Sprout routines to keep our team motivated. Finally, we must remember our local community. We are constantly searching for ways to give back, whether it be through business gifts or ongoing good deeds through our Sprout Serves volunteer activities.

Avoid going it alone.

We don't have to do it all by ourselves, Brené Brown says in her book Rising Strong. We never intended to. This is true all the time, but it becomes even more true when we encounter circumstances that are genuinely unheard of. It can be tempting to hold our cards close, to dig in, and to attempt to emerge from a crisis with a strategy. Being in that situation is tremendously isolating for a leader, and it nearly never results in the greatest solution.

One of the first things we did at Sprout was to assemble a crisis response team made up of members from our various office locations, office operations, IT, people operations, communications, and legal teams, giving them a really diverse range of viewpoints. I will always be appreciative of this group when I reflect back on this period of steering our organization through such enormous unknowns. Each participant brought to the table a level of experience and a distinct perspective that influenced our choices and strategies.

They also aided in creating a space where one could remark, "This is really difficult, and I'm not sure what to do." I needed confidence and assurance to know we were making the correct choices, and having this team say, "We don't either, but we're going to get through it anyway—together," gave me those things. We must rely on each other as leaders managing extraordinary situations and learn from one another.

laying out a future course

By definition, uncertainty is terrifying. It also offers the ability to learn some of life's most valuable lessons and to develop fresh routines and approaches that will guide how we respond to the inescapable future uncertainties we will encounter as leaders. Try to focused on the opportunity instead of being tempted to notice simply the fear of the circumstance. Don't be afraid to choose what is most important to your company and create a crisis communication strategy to prepare for unforeseen events. Additionally, you may develop a crisis management template. The way forward becomes evident when we take an agile approach to uncertainty and allow ourselves to engage with other leaders.

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