An Upside-down World

The world changed in February 2020, when coronavirus spread across the planet. We watched the devastation in China and then Italy in the weeks leading up to the virus’ grip on the United States, where the economy ground to a halt, state by state. It is a new world colored by social distance, seclusion and sanitizer. Shock and fear permeate families and businesses. Homes have transformed into workplaces and schools.

As executive coaches, we find ourselves handholding and intensively coaching our executive clients (albeit at a safe social distance), and we are observing two stages in their reactions. Stage 1 is Red Alert. Oddly enough, it can be exhilarating, spurring a rush of adrenaline. Executive teams pull together for crisis planning, evaluating scenarios and making hard decisions. This stage includes, for example, deciding which activities to continue and which to stop, what to communicate and how, and ways to stay connected to customers. It fosters teamplay, camaraderie and mutual support. The executives feel smart, competent and eerily in control.

In stage 2, reality hits. Painful consequences become clear, whether they are layoffs, compensation reductions, the termination of pet projects and, most importantly, the personal toll of illness. People become sick, and some succumb to the virus; at this point, most people know someone who has been afflicted or affected in some way. The executive must come to grips with the fact that this year is about raw survival, not success. The tedium of staying home becomes palpable, and the executive’s energy level hits a low.

How long executives experience each stage varies. It seems that the leaders whose businesses are more shielded from the impact remain longer in stage 1. Regardless of stage, there are coaching techniques that are well received and effective.

The Basics

Coaches must acknowledge that this situation is difficult, both personally and professionally. The start of each conversation revolves around health, family and stress. It is OK for coaches to acknowledge their own difficulties coping with this crisis (but not too much) to let the person know it’s OK and even expected. As coaches, we listen empathically and encourage leaders to do the same with their people. This conversation might entail a quick review of active listening skills so the executive can compassionately demonstrate that he or she cares.

Social distancing demands that communication become a priority, beyond business as usual. Assume there is no such thing as too much communication. Leaders should think through their messages so that they reflect empathy as well as information to help people understand the impact to the business, the roles they are playing and relevant updates. While some communication will be spontaneous, overall, it needs to be planned.

It’s also important for leaders to keep their team focused and motivated. A predictable cadence of communication is one method, but it is also valuable for people to “see” each other through videoconferencing tools. If a child or a pet enters the screen, celebrate it. Make it fun. People still need to laugh; in fact, it is a healthy distraction. Personal notes for a job well done or for persistence carry a lot of weight.

Be aware that many people are off their game, including the executive. Stress, whether felt overtly or not, has a real impact. It can be as minute as typos or forgetting to send an email. It can also result in poor decision-making. Leaders should have patience, be forgiving of themselves and others, and make space for those misfires.

Because decision-making can be impacted by stress, it is important to pay attention to stress and suggests methods to mitigate its impact. It can be helpful to create a process for decision-making, such as thinking through more than one alternative, playing out if/then scenarios and engaging a devil’s advocate.

It is helpful for executive coaches to facilitate a discussion and assessment about what is mission-critical, what the executives can put off and what no longer matters. This conversation is especially important if the executive feels overwhelmed. It is good practice to reevaluate initiatives in light of the new context.

During the pandemic, each day may bring difficult, even excruciating choices. There will be no breaks for executives. Thus, self-care (e.g., rest, exercise and enjoying a non-work activity) to maintain resilience is even more critical than usual.

Bringing out the Best

The crisis also presents an opportunity. Coaching can help executives adopt a demeanor of calm for their people. In fact, coaches might be the best receptacles of executives’ anxiety. When an executive becomes the touchstone for people, communicating “We will get through this,” it anchors the organization. At the same time, it is beneficial for the executive to showcase his or her humanity, acknowledging that all aspects of the situation are difficult.

The extent of this crisis means that existing business paradigms are out the window. Coaches can encourage executives to take advantage of this blank slate to rewrite the rules. The situation is ripe to be a first mover (rather than a slow or even a fast follower) and seize a business opportunity such as an acquisition, a different customer, new products or a new organization design. On a smaller scale, there is an opportunity to act on projects or ideas that previously sat on the back burner. Lastly, the time is ripe for executives — indeed, for their organization — to demonstrate a social conscience, designing a form of community outreach that people can feel good about.

It is still early. As coaches, we wrestle with the reality of this new world along with the executives we coach, and we cannot predict what is next. Perhaps there will be a third stage. At a minimum, we can assume that more issues will emerge in our coaching engagement.

We wish everyone safety and health!