Kristin Ihle Molinaroli, Ph.D. clearly has the breadth and depth of experience to work with leaders facing down a wide range of crises. As the president and founder of the consulting firm Avant — which supports Fortune 200 companies and startups in strategic talent management and team performance — coupled with her time as a professional athlete for Nike and a consultant supporting NCAA coaches who enhance team effectiveness, she’s up for the challenge of leading in difficult times.
“Leading is something many people want to do,” says Kristin Ihle Molinaroli. “We all know it is a complicated role to fill. It is challenging in good times, what about in crisis? Except for the Great Recession of 2008–2009, most of the workforce today is dealing with the unprecedented impact of a global pandemic. What does this mean for our leaders? What is their call to leadership?”
She suggests before leaders can get out there and offer their best, they need to consider their personal management and the desired impact they want to have. “Yes, this sounds ludicrous: to slow down while the pace of the world is a breakneck speed. But we sometimes get so caught up in doing that, we lose sense of our person.” Molinaroli says as a licensed psychologist, it’s no surprise she suggests leaders start with themselves.
What does she mean by personal management? Molinaroli explains, “First and foremost is self-awareness. What are your emotional responses to a crisis? Do you become agitated, anxious, angry, gloomy? Leaders do need a place to safely process what is going on inside and yet, their responsibility is to be intentional about what they transmit to their team, company, industry.”
After getting a handle on their emotional and psychological tendencies in a crisis, a leader can pause to consider what they need to manage about themselves and their intended impact.
Under duress, leader behaviors and words can often be amplified (like through a megaphone) both favorably and unfavorably. While dealing with turbulent times is challenging for all, it is a distinct moment for leaders to provide clarity, confidence, and engagement to the broader organization. Here are the actions Molinaroli suggests can help during this new COVID-19 era:
- Set the Psychological/Emotional Tone. Leaders need to validate the present realities by being genuine, confirming what is true, and ensuring rumors are addressed. Empathy is important, so be sure to ask questions and listen to your employees. Engage employees more than usual; the good news is there is a range of technology out there to enable engagement. That said, Molinaroli says, “There is nothing that beats a five-minute call where one can communicate using direct human connection.” Thereis a fine balance between acknowledging the very real difficulties in the environment while inspiring confidence that we will see our way through them.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate. Be sure to have a communication cadence that leverages a wide range of modalities for pushing out information. Molinaroli tells us it’s important to communicate even when you don’t have any new updates. She says, “In the absence of communication, it is human nature to fill in the blanks. Moreover, in crisis it tends to be with our own concerns or fears.” Leaders need to work hard to mitigate common rationalizations about communications. Examples include: “I am too busy,” “Details are not yet clear, so I have nothing to share,” and “I already told them once.”
- Focus. Help your employees identify what they can and can’t control. Establish clear action steps to address what can be managed. This is not a new idea and is an area in which leaders have experience –— disaster recovery crises, for example. Providing a sense of focus and a plan can give people a sense of accomplishment. Kristin Ihle Molinaroli says, “No matter how small a goal may seem, they are important. Remember, as a species human beings are goal–directed.”
- Engagement 2.0. The world suddenly shifted to “work from home” (WFH) in the new COVID-19 era. Technology helped build connections in a workforce that’s more remote than ever. What about jobs that require employees to be on-site — leaders need to make time to be present physically where possible. Leaders now need to find ways to align and create a sense of belonging in a workforce mixed with on–site and remote workers. While this is not new, it’s likely laden with new complexities — resentment toward workers who can work remotely, increased blending of work life and homelife. In the end, leaders need to create conditions where employees feel “plugged in” (especially for those who suffer from FOMO) and a part of a community.
A Business Example
Consider the leadership of Alan Mulally, who was the CEO of Ford Motor Company during the economic downturn. When companies were being bailed out right and left, Ford Motor Company declined the offer. Under Mulally’s leadership,, the organization built a plan (The One Ford Plan) that addressed many facets of the business and culture. In so doing, he not only created a focused plan but created an environment that incented executives to collaborate rather than battle for resources. This is a fantastic example of leadership implementing actions suggested by Dr. Kristin Ihle Molinaroli.
There is no question that COVID-19 has put incredible pressure on leaders and managers to be present in ways that have never been necessary before. These suggestions are not intended to be comprehensive by any means; however, they are good starting points for what may work in one’s own company.