Leadership Lessons From The Pandemic


It always looks great on the model in the catalogue or on the website: that “one size fits all” poncho or bathrobe or sundress. But when it arrives at home and you try it on and look in the mirror, well….

The same goes for advice on being a better leader or manager, whether it’s an article in The Harvard Business Review or Fast Company, a tip from your favorite podcast, or well-intentioned guidance from a mentor. It sounds good when they tell the story, but when you try to put the idea to work in your own situation it falls flat or even backfires.

So why do we continue to be seduced by “one size fits all” solutions when we know all too well that we are all, in fact, different sizes?

I was discussing this challenge recently with my good friend and colleague Dr. Ankur Saraiya. We both coach and advise senior executives, but Ankur brings the perspective of both a medical doctor and a practicing psychiatrist to his work and our conversations. Doctors are highly trained not to fall into the trap of assuming that the same prescription will work for Patient A and Patient B. Shouldn’t coaches and leadership gurus do the same?

Ankur and I found that when we start working with our clients they often express frustration about trying out popular strategies or processes and not getting the game-changing results described in what they read/heard/saw. The case studies we traded ranged from starting a new executive role, to trying a new treatment strategy, to restructuring an organization, to trying (yet again) to achieve better work-life-health balance.

When each of us breaks it down with our respective clients, we often realize that the wise advice, even if “good” on the surface and effective for other clients, was actually a mismatch for this particular clients’ priorities, resources, and current needs and situation. One size does not fit all.

This reality became even more apparent over the last few years as we all scrambled to deal with new challenges or take advantage of new opportunities during the pandemic. For some, the pandemic made their lives drastically more stressful: they had to learn to manage their hands-on in-person job completely from home, essentially overnight, while also trying to cope with stress with their families, in a confined space, not to mention in some cases supervising children newly grappling with remote learning.

For many of these individuals, the best advice was that they simply needed to be compassionate with themselves and give themselves a break. And then give themselves another break. They needed to accept that this new life was going to be messier than ever; that there was no playbook; and (hard for high-performers to do) that getting the bare minimum accomplished was in fact a huge win. For these people, the pandemic was not the time to take on new projects or hobbies: it was a time to dip into the rainy-day fund and focus on getting through each day as well as possible. Ankur’s message to clients in this category was that it was ok to just take a mulligan for the time being and plan to attack their goals again once they had figured out how to manage all of the near-term chaos. I, Mark, stressed that what was most important of all was to “protect the asset” and “put on your own oxygen mask before attempting to help others.”

But this advice didn’t apply to everyone. There was another subset of people for whom the changes to their routines brought on by the pandemic actually freed up time, energy, and resources, sometimes in remarkable degrees. Some people who were spared the wear and tear of daily commuting and business travel were able to use that “found” time to take on new projects, develop new customers, and innovate. Some of us had fewer meetings as clients were busy figuring out their new routines; some found we were more efficient working from home, saved from the distractions around the office. For some, staying home meant extra days each month at their disposal. For these individuals we warned against using the general Covid-related stress narrative as an excuse to slack off. We told them, “be honest with yourself and if the pandemic has lightened your load, then invest in yourself and others.” Try out that new diet that may require more time spent shopping and cooking. Up your exercise game with more workouts, more intensity, a new routine, or a combination of all of the above. Take on learning a new skill that has been sitting on the back burner. Devote more time to serving not-for-profits you care about, or mentoring others. The main thing was not to fall into the easy pattern of a day full of Zoom happy hours, Netflix binging, and endless Tiktok scrolling.

As we start, perhaps, to see a light at the end of this pandemic tunnel, we should not forget some of these lessons. They were always true, even if the pandemic allowed us see them more clearly. We always need to match our strategy to our circumstances.

One useful way to do more with the lessons and suggestions available so widely out in the world is to create an inventory of your current needs and your current resources. Once you have a good idea of each you can assess what kind of advice actually makes sense for you. The value of any advice can only be measured by how well it matches your circumstance and needs. Just like we should never go grocery shopping when we’re hungry (unless there’s no food in the house and the alternative would be to hit a fast food joint), we should not depend on fast advice or recommendations without being clear on the problems we’re trying to solve and the benefits we’re trying to gain. Learn to ask yourself: “Is this the right advice at the right time for me and for my current circumstances?”



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