The Once-in-a-Lifetime Crisis

COVID-19 forced leaders to quickly learn how to balance empathy for their staff while continuing to achieve results

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, Salene Hitchcock-Gear, president of Individual Life Insurance at Prudential Financial, recalls thinking, “‘We’ve got to do something, we’ve got to do it really quickly, and we need to understand there’s a lot we don’t know.’ Then, when we started to digest that this was long-term, we immediately turned to, ‘How do we keep our employees safe, pay attention to our customers, and sustain our business for the foreseeable future?’”

Glenda McNeal, president of Enterprise Strategic Partnerships at American Express, voiced similar thoughts at the time, she says, along with the importance of delivering value to customers without interruption. When the question of remote work for her team arose, it didn’t faze her; she was accustomed to working from home effectively due to pre-COVID health issues.

Zeta Smith, CEO of Sodexo Seniors North America, was hired around the onset of the pandemic to lead Sodexo’s 300 senior communities, which range from independent living to memory care. They went into lockdown within a week of her starting the job—she had barely gotten to know her team. So from the start, Smith worked to instill trust in everyone affected. One of her first questions was, “How do we keep the residents and our staff safe?”

Accepting uncertainty

COVID-19 is perhaps the biggest crisis we’ll face in our work lives. Though many companies had plans mapped out for various crisis scenarios, COVID was so sudden and deadly that most leaders found themselves scrambling, having to consider how to lead during this troubled time, what to expect from their teams, and how to balance empathy with the need to achieve results.

Asking questions of yourself is a natural first step for executives when the world is unsettled. Christina Fang, professor of management and organizations at the Stern School of Business, says, “We need to entertain the idea that the business world is uncertain. We’re facing ever more changes, not just from COVID but from technological disruptions, societal changes, climate changes, and so on. Top management teams are often considered rational, analytical leaders who are deliberate and confident. On the other hand, they need to become adaptive, intuitive, and comfortable going with the flow.”

Nancy Koehn, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School whose research focuses on crisis leadership, advises that if leaders want to be better prepared for future crises, “they need to get comfortable with ambiguity, volatility, or rapid change. They have to absorb that this is the new state of the world.”

Expanding communication

Communication has been key for all three leaders during this calamity. At the beginning of the pandemic, Hitchcock-Gear instituted what she refers to as “stand-up huddles” twice a week for several months, which moved to once a week. This ensured that her staff was updated on the information to be conveyed to their customers in the thick of the early pandemic. No matter where employees were or what they were doing (even dealing with kids), she asked them to dial in at a certain time for a “quick catch-up.”

Those calls were very helpful, she says. “Things could change day by day, and we were able to think about where to apply our attention and resources.” She knew that not everyone could make all of these calls, so she made sure that employees were caught up on what they missed.

“Communicating is about being seen and being heard, being available and acknowledging how people are feeling,” McNeal says. She and her team met daily for 30 minutes for a few months just to touch base, and she’d ask, “Are these meetings too frequent? What’s going on? What questions do you have?” The calls moved to three times a week, followed by twice a week, then weekly.

“Employees want to feel safe in the midst of instability, and communication and teamwork can help stabilize the situation,” Smith says. “People want to know what’s going on, and I tell them, ‘Whatever I know, I will tell you,’ and try to be as transparent as possible.” She had daily calls with her direct reports for the first three months, who in turn did the same with their teams. She also held weekly calls with the next layer of employees, which included the district managers and financial employees.

Leaders and managers serve as guideposts for people in times of volatility, and hearing from them becomes increasingly important as the instability increases, says Koehn. “[Leaders] need to realize that communication is a much bigger part of their to-do list now.”

Showing empathy and vulnerability

Hitchcock-Gear stresses the importance of empathy and vulnerability during trying times, even while managing business needs. “In the leadership studies that will come post-COVID, some things will stand out, such as leaders who spent time with their teams and really dug in to see how people were doing. These leaders have created a lot of lasting value in an organization,” she says.

Hitchcock-Gear adds that it’s important to show up in crises and shares a personal example. “Reaching out to others provides an opportunity to be open and vulnerable with your team members about your own experiences,” she says. “My mom, who’s 85, lives with me. I still have people who say, ‘Remember when you told me x about your mother?’ and then they reveal something about their mother during the pandemic.”

“There’s power in demonstrating vulnerability as a leader, and it allows for connection,” says McNeal. “If my team, my colleagues, and my customers understand I’m going through similar things as they are, they see me with a different lens.” For her, memorable experiences have occurred when meetings involved more than discussing business. They’ve happened when people have asked, “Where are you quarantining, and how are you doing?” Everyone’s human side has been evident during COVID, she says.

Smith, too, describes the caring that people have displayed as unforgettable. “Even in the darkest of times, it’s the small things, the personal touches, that can really create moments,” she says. With residents restricted to their rooms at their communities, they needed those moments, and Sodexo employees had to find creative ways to engage and entertain them. Employees came up with a number of ways—from placing notes on residents’ meal trays to dancing in the parking lot outside their windows and holding up signs that read “We miss you.” Smith has shared these ideas across the communities, and as a board member of the Girl Scouts of the USA, she also arranged for Girl Scouts across the country to write letters to the seniors.

“The thoughtful use of empathy is completely and utterly aligned with [business] results,” Koehn says, adding that empathy is an important tool to relate to people, to communicate effectively with them, to inspire and engage them, and to dial down fear.

Moving forward

Fang offers one final thought for top executives: “Leaders need to make sure they can react quickly and consider a reactive approach [to be] a legitimate way of strategizing. Sometimes strategizing is just reacting to an external event,” she says. As an example, she points to IKEA and the way its leaders responded when a Value Added Tax (VAT) was imposed on the public in Sweden. “People wanted to take advantage of pricing before the tax took effect, and they flooded the stores, which the company couldn’t handle. Top management responded by opening their warehouses and letting customers pick their own furniture, which was purely a reaction to an external event over which they had no control,” she says.

Today’s leaders are learning to deal with a health crisis that some medical experts predict will always be part of our lives and will need to be managed in perpetuity. The companies that continue to thrive will be those that adapt and apply the hard-earned lessons from the last two years.

Crises place the responsibility for battling through squarely on the shoulders of leadership teams. As Smith recalls, “An executive coach once told me, ‘Leadership is like a tea bag; your true colors show up in hot water.’” DW


Pat Olsen is based in New Jersey and writes about business, health, and technology.

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