By Jeff Mazur, LaunchCode
A portion of this blog post was originally published in the St. Louis Business Journal.
Late last year, I was honored to be among a handful of area executives interviewed by the St. Louis Business Journal about leading their organizations. One question made me profoundly uncomfortable. It’s the one that has popped into my mind repeatedly as we’ve embarked on the unwelcome adventure of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What are we doing as leaders of my organization to be good partners to our teammates in navigating this uncertain and treacherous moment?”
One simple question about sharing leadership advice made me uneasy because so much “advice” is predicated on the notion that the giver has a special level of insight into the solution for any situation. As my answer demonstrated, I see leadership differently. To me, leadership is about what we do when there are no right answers to be had and nominal leaders are as deep in the dark as everyone else.
A global pandemic plunging economies into unprecedented retreat is one of those situations to which there is no good answer. A delayed but fitting coda to my interview, neither anticipated nor desired.
So in the last few weeks, as LaunchCode responded to a changed world by becoming a fully remote organization in staff location and program delivery, I’ve thought a lot about whether I’m following my own advice. Here are a few categories of things I’d highlight:
We all know about and many of us now have firsthand experience in being forced by the virus to play additional roles, such as daytime caregiver and K-12 education coordinator or neighborhood block captain. This means any free brain space your colleagues once had is now overrun with new public health routines, Google classroom logins and disrupted daily schedules.
And that doesn’t capture other more acute effects experienced by those facing their own illness or the illness of a loved one.
One way we’ve tried to give people space is by reiterating loudly to our team the critical distinction between Work From Home (WFH) and Paid Time Off (PTO). Now that we no longer go to the office for work, we are still in our workplace, even when we take PTO – making it doubly important that people genuinely disconnect when they take PTO. In a world where our valued employees can never really escape their workplace, we have to help them maintain a healthy distance from work when it’s most needed.
Owning the reality that old routines may need to be set aside has been tough, but necessary. For the first two weeks of remote work, we could have insisted our sales team hit the outreach harder than ever to make up for flagging economic conditions. Instead, we had them step away from the same-old. Rather than asking good people simply to run faster at the brick wall of COVID-19 panic, we asked them to take a week or more to retool. We aimed them at some training geared toward selling in uncertainty and supported them in developing new messages — much-needed space to explore softly with their customers what this is going to mean to them.
Is it possible we missed out on sales opportunities over those two weeks? Of course. Do I think giving my team space to reset their view and expectations will make them more effective over the medium term? Absolutely.
There’s an old saw that says if you leave people in the dark about what is happening they’ll make something up to fill in the gaps — and what they imagine is often far worse than reality. Old saws don’t get to be old without having some truth in them.
So we’ve tried to lead in this moment by trusting that our team can deal with an honest and transparent accounting of reality, even on uncomfortable topics.
In the early going, this has meant sharing comprehensive data about suspected COVID-19 exposures with both our students and staff within hours of first receiving information. It also means being open with data about the organization’s financial position, so even staff who don’t regularly deal with day-to-day business realities can understand where things stand. For us, this has meant talking on a weekly basis about more granular drivers of organizational revenue and being explicit about how much “runway” the organization has in various scenarios. Luckily, our position is strong. But sharing in stable times will make the conversations easier if and when volatility sets in.
Even steady leaders have ups and downs. Rather than faking stoicism and trying to convey a sense of unflappability, leaders can show their colleagues it’s natural in a time of crisis to have rough days mixed in with the ordinary. Click to tweet.
By modeling acceptance and understanding of that fact, leaders can make their people feel comfortable knowing they aren’t alone in discomfort.
At LaunchCode, our mission is to build a skilled workforce by creating pathways for driven people seeking careers in technology. That was our mission five years ago. It’s our mission today. It will be our mission when COVID-19 is a distant memory.
In pursuing that mission, we’ve become really good at understanding what companies need, finding people who can fill those needs, and connecting those two things in a way that works well for all parties. It turns out, those strengths don’t apply exclusively to technology jobs.
So when one of our most committed and prolific tech hiring partners reached out to us as the pandemic struck with an urgent need to fill customer service center jobs, we had a decision to make: be rigid about what our mission means or think flexibly about how our mission has positioned us to help our community in different ways?
During a time when our community is seeing workers across whole sectors like restaurant, retail and hospitality lose their jobs en masse, we felt our only real choice was to adapt our mission to place people in tech-adjacent jobs like the ones our partner had to offer. We could be unyielding. Or we could toss a lifeline to dozens of people just as they needed it while aiding a valued partner in a time of need.
In twelve days, more than twenty people are back to work because we were willing to adapt. To us, that’s more valuable than passing a mission purity test.
Maybe the hardest part about being in a situation where there are no good answers is that everyone spends so much time trying to find them. Or seeking clues to the right solutions. Or looking for tea leaves to read. It can get to where any kind of positive activity or momentum is taken hostage by the very human instinct to try constantly to determine when things are going to change again.
Putting a finger in the air every two hours to gauge the changing winds is exhausting and distracting. So we’ve tried to impress upon our team the importance of simply living as best we can in these ill-fitting new circumstances. We want to adopt the mindset that this is our world now, and our participants and partners are best served by us figuring out how to be effective within it rather than obsessing about when it will change.
If that means simply assuming that the rest of 2020 looks like this and planning for that possible reality, then that’s what our people will do. Better a good plan for an uncertain future than a plan that can never be finalized for want of more data. If you believe, as I do, that most people want to focus on what they are good at, we ought to get them out of the business of prognosticating and back to helping people.
How can we navigate uncertainty with our colleagues (especially at physical distance) without regular visible reminders that we care about one another, are invested in one another’s struggles, and find the world to be a better place because of the relationships we have built among ourselves? I submit that it isn’t possible. Certainty is of no comfort if it’s the certainty only that I’ve won the opportunity to spend more time and sweat alongside people whom I do not value.
And so as uncertainty reigns it’s not a luxury but a necessity that people have the chance to “spend time” together in ways that aren’t simply an extension of the mechanics of work. They need an opening to remember casually that they are connected to the organization and the mission and the people by something more than a paycheck. That they’ve made friends with and have emotional connection to folks to whom, only weeks ago, they spent 40+ weekly hours in close proximity.
And so we’ve welcomed amazing organic opportunities generated by our people.
During our first week of remote work, LaunchCode’s VP of Tech and Education, Chris Bay, who until recently hosted a Monday evening indie-alt radio show on the local independent station, started a weekly LaunchCode radio show. Broadcast online, the show takes staff requests and phone calls, includes an online chat, and sees 30-40 people commune for two hours each Friday over shared tunes. As Chris says, “music is something that makes us feel good.” It does, and it makes us feel good “together” even as we listen on our own. Just a few episodes in, it’s now kind of hard to imagine LaunchCode Radio will ever go away.
I and my fellow leaders are certainly doing other things to lead in a time of strife that aren’t reflected here. But by giving people space, sharing honestly and transparently, adapting the mission, embracing a new normal, and celebrating one another, we are trying to improve our odds of pathfinding a way through the deepening morass.
Am I succeeding at following my own advice?
None of us can say before some later time, date as yet unknown. Until then I look at COVID-19 as a perverse opportunity. How often do we get to test our theories of life? When else but in deep crisis can we finally understand whether our internal narrative of how we’d respond in a pinch matches up with the experiences of our colleagues and the steep new requirements of a changed and unfamiliar world?