Last week, like many of you, we wrote an email to all of our customers to put them at ease. We wanted to let them know we are here, we are working and ready to help with anything they need. With news headlines, markets and even laws changing by the hour – there’s plenty to be concerned about but as a business-critical partner, we want to be a source of stability.
But are we all doing the same for our employees?
I thought over the weekend about the times in my business career when things felt like this, or at least, when I perceived a major disruption or even a halt to business being done. There were three that came to mind. Each of which impacted me and my businesses differently, but also taught me important leadership lessons that I hope to apply now.
- January 1990: I was in sales at the ripe age of 16, and standing on a trade show floor when the Gulf War began. It was an abrupt push into the real world as I was balancing being a sales guy on the weekends and a high school sophomore during the week. It was the first time I saw mentors of mine scared. I didn’t know what to do but I remember just staying close to my General Manger. He was a 6 foot 3 Irishman who was as tough as they come. I remember him being quiet, real quiet – and that said everything.
- September 2001: We all recall where we were on this terrible day. I was running a business with several partners. I remember going into the office in shock, not knowing what to do or say. So I did what I did best back then – I went to work and asked everyone to do the same. I worked and worked to avoid the fear and worry of the world, not realizing or even thinking to care how our employees were handling it. I naively assumed they would handle it like I did. I was wrong. Looking back I recall how scared they were, needing leadership I didn’t provide because I didn’t know how.
- September 2008: There was not a single day I remember as the financial crisis hit as it felt like a slow, painful burn. As a business owner I had been preparing myself, but I recall the market drop and bank shutdowns of that Fall that made me quickly realize I was not prepared – or not as much as I thought I was. There was an uneasiness in the air, foreclosure signs littering the streets and a realization that just working hard through this was not going to be enough. It was a scary time for my young family, and I could feel myself bringing home the stress as it mounted each day. It felt like me against the world with everything crashing in, and on some occasions I caved in, letting depression and self-pity take over instead of being the husband and father I should have been.
As I look back at all three of these experiences, I recognize that I learned a lot, grew a lot and yes – got through it all. I also see that during each of these moments of crisis that I felt and reacted differently depending on the stage of life I was in or the people I was around. Like everyone, I was seeking stability and support, but I failed to do so for those around me. I was focused on personal and business preservation rather than protecting those that mattered most. Simply put, I missed opportunities to be a leader for my colleagues, my employees and my family.
So, as we all watch the events related to the COVID-19 outbreak continue to unfold, we find ourselves at a crossroads as companies and leaders. We’re searching for answers, rules to follow or past experiences to lean on. For me, those past experiences serve as a reminder that we can get through this, but also this my opportunity to be a better leader. Yes, we need to protect our business and serve our customers – but we also have to be here for our employees. Whether you have 1, 10 or thousands of employees, each of them are digesting what’s going on right now in a different way. And even if they are OK, or are pretending they are OK, chances are that someone at home or in their immediate family is not.
This is your opportunity to lead when they need it most – to show patience, empathy and flexibility for your teams, employees and customers. You won’t have all the right answers, or make all the right decisions, but they will know you sincerely care and doing your best. It won’t be something you can measure, but trust that will matter more than you’ll ever know. It can be an email, a call, an all-hands meeting or a one-on-one conversation, but take the time to let them know you are here, you are working for them and you are ready to help however you can.
Your employees need to know you have their back.