As I pencil my return to the office date in my planner, I reflect on the challenges our company has endured over the last ten weeks. Like most people, no one at The Horizon Group fully anticipated that after leaving on March 18th, it would be more than three months until the office would open for us to return. Not being able to adequately prepare for this crisis, has led the group to deal with several challenges and stresses along the way. However, I am proud to say that leadership persevered, broke out their tool chests, and used the appropriate tools to get us through. Although there were several lessons learned along the way, realizing and experiencing the effects that these tools have in times of crisis has been most impactful. Horizon Group's leadership experimented with several tools during this time, with some proving to be more effective than others. I firmly believe that effectively planning, listening, practicing empathy, saying “Thank You,” and showing love and care are the most effective tools in the chest, and are primarily responsible for getting us through this challenging time.
In the days leading up to our closure on the 18th, information, government orders, and additional restrictions were rapidly being fired at everyone. It became evident that our organization wasn't going to avoid the effects of COVID-19. Leadership began developing a plan and continued modifying it as information transpired. As with most crises, there wasn’t enough time or reliable data for an elaborate plan to be developed. So, leadership focused primarily on a plan to cover the immediate needs of the business and presented it to the team in a simple, concise manner to avoid further confusion. Both Jones (1995) and Maxwell (2008) speak to the importance of a clear plan, while also leading readers to understand that it is a work in progress along the way. As the lockdown period grew from weeks to months, leadership continued developing plans and relaying them to the team along the way. In fact, plans continue to be developed and explained as we get ready to return back to the office. These are especially important as they address concerns around COVID-19. Having these plans along the way has kept everyone on the team informed and working toward the same goal, therefore making it essential. Without these plans, one can assume that chaos and confusion would ensue.
Another vital tool used was listening, and as presented throughout Organizational Leadership, it is a skill and quality of a servant leader. Listening helps in two ways, it makes people feel as if they aren't alone, and it can give leaders the information necessary to figure out solutions to the challenge from those closest to the situation (Greenleaf, 2008, p.18). Maxwell (2018) states: “Most of the time when people experience change, particularly in businesses and organizations, they are not alone in the process, but they do often feel that way” (p. 77). To make sure no one felt alone in the process, as well as prevent and address the challenges the team experienced during the transition, it was evident that leadership actively engaging with employees as well as listening to them was more important than ever during this time. So, leaders like myself let the team know that reaching out via phone, Zoom, text, or email at any time was entirely acceptable and highly encouraged. Leadership was more than willing to take the time to listen to what difficulties people were facing to try to come up with solutions that would work for them and the business. This proved to be very useful and beneficial during the crisis.
In addition to listening, practicing empathy, another skill possessed by servant leaders, became a vital tool during this crisis as well (Greenleaf, 2008, p.21). Unlike working from the office where people have their own space and keep outside interruptions minimal during working hours, every employee’s remote working situation was unique and presented a variety of challenges. Some team members began homeschooling multiple children, some had newborn babies at home, some had home office spaces, and some worked from their kitchen table. The challenges in each situation had to be worked through and couldn’t be ignored. As they were brought to leadership’s attention, it was important that leadership practice empathy and put themselves in the employee’s shoes to gain a different perspective on the issue at hand. By practicing empathy, Horizon Group leadership realized the circumstances that employees were facing called for solutions that might not be considered acceptable in normal times. For example, some employees needed their work hours altered to home school their children during the day, and some required their tasks temporarily shift from one person to another to accommodate their challenges and the needs of the organization. Maxwell (2008) states: “Show patience, acknowledge their humanness, and work with them. Not only will this help them process the change, but it will help us to influence them more quickly and move them forward” (p. 77). Again, empathy has been vital, and I don't believe employee dedication to our organization and willingness to work through these challenges would have been accepted so readily without leadership acting empathetically toward them.
Another tool worth acknowledging is the simple act of saying, “Thank you." Our company has always been mindful of expressing gratitude; however, it was especially important to continue fostering this activity remotely during the crisis as people’s morale and moods deteriorated. Maxwell (2008), speaks of the importance of expressing gratitude even when one’s heart is heavy and inhibits the desire to show it (p. 125). To combat the negativity in our firm, team members were reminded to give each other core value shout outs, leadership praised jobs well done during firmwide morning Zoom meetings, and “thank-you’s” to staff were expressed publicly during weekly conference calls with clients.
Appreciation for your Team
One of the most unique forms of a thank-you we all received came from Mark, The Horizon Group’s founder. Right before Easter, he made up and delivered large Easter baskets to all ten employees and their families. The personalization of each basket and Mark's willingness to drive across Western and Central New York to personally deliver each showed the employees that they were appreciated. It also showed family members how much their spouse or parent’s hard work means to the business. This "thank-you” was enjoyed by everyone and gave the group the morale and energy boost needed at that time.
In addition to the baskets, Mark wrote handwritten thank-you notes that he signed with "Love, Mark." Some may find this inappropriate, however, I didn't think that at all. I actually believe his expression of love was another essential tool for getting the group through the crisis. It further exemplified his level of care and concern for everyone. Jones (1995) talks about how Jesus, as a leader, loved his disciples and knew they would come back to him because he loved them (p.257). This is an example of why Horizon Group employees are willing to give and endure so much to the company during difficult times.
To conclude, although COVID-19 has proven to be challenging, I'm grateful for the opportunity to be reminded of the leadership toolbox and how vital each tool is for leading teams through difficult times. I sincerely hope none of us ever has to go through anything like this COVID-19 crisis in the future. However, a crisis of some sort is likely, and when it hits, I'll be ready to plan, listen, practice empathy, show gratitude, and express love to my team as I've seen firsthand how impactful those tools have been.