Coaches play a critical role in supporting leaders during a crisis, helping secure the infrastructure that invites individuals to be more intentional, connected, and well-resourced in moments of challenge. For some of my clients, this has looked like helping them break down a weekly schedule, set boundaries for work-life, and figure out how to turn difficult moments into opportunities.
For others, coaching during the pandemic has continued to help them explore something deep and powerful that was already being revealed in their working world. What the pandemic has done is expedite this revelation, exposing the default mental habits of many and, in some cases, accelerating the leadership that might have taken months or years otherwise.
Here are the stories of three real leaders – Carol, Kevin, and Talia – who have used COVID-19 to shift their perspectives, cope with unforeseen circumstances, and turn them into opportunities to become more productive and intentional in their professional lives. While their names have been changed to protect their anonymity, I hope that their stories will inspire you, as they inspire me daily, to help grow yourself during this challenging time.
The high-powered scientist battling a fear of failing.
Carol landed her dream job late last summer. The job has an incredibly ambitious mission and asks that she work long hours, grow a team, and truly step up and lead in a bigger way than ever before. For a few months, we have been working on helping her overcome a sense of inadequacy that makes her feel like she needs to deliver the perfect work to an imagined crowd of critics analyzing her every move. And now, while all eyes are on the scientific community to deliver, the feeling threatens to paralyze her. For Carol, the pandemic has laid bare what we had already been uncovering for months, namely a pattern that does not scale in her new environment and is causing her to shrink in the face of mounting deadlines.
The opportunity: Carol realized that now was truly the moment to face her fears and tackle this old pattern head-on. By uncovering the source of the fear and leaning into a series of new exercises that help her speak up in meetings, take bigger risks and clearly communicate her value, she is able to rise to the challenge before her and focus on the important work at hand.
The VP of Sales who had to lay off 50% of his workforce.
I started working with Kevin two years ago when his company was in a major growth sprint. When the company hit rocky waters last Fall, they had to conduct their first round of layoffs. At the time, Kevin let HR take the lead on a plan for the layoffs that resulted in deeply damaged company morale. When he discovered that this quarter, they would have to again cut the workforce dramatically, he was unsure as to how to handle these conversations from a distance while being as expedient, humane and respectful to staff as possible.
The opportunity: Kevin paused to consider what he knew his team needed, as well as what he knew about empathetic leadership, and decided to take the reins this time, laying out a plan. He and his Founders conducted individual zoom meetings with every member of his team to communicate the decision, and then followed up with all company meetings and other messaging to communicate the changes and allow time for team members to acknowledge each other. As a result, he said, “was like night and day.” The remaining team felt energized and even the departing employees said they were grateful for how the process was handled. Kevin knows now he can put the human at the center of the equation and buy long term gains with extra time and attention paid upfront to sensitive transitions.
The operations manager at a major tech company trying to be future-focused.
And finally, Talia. Talia leads a huge team at a major tech company and, on a normal day, she struggles to make any kind of time for strategic thinking. When we started working together, Talia’s version of long-term planning was to squeeze in one 30-minute strategy session a quarter. Between balancing the needs of teams, daily fires and new crises, a demanding boss, and a job where she continues to get volunteered for special task forces, Talia was already spread beyond thin when the pandemic hit, and now she’s coming loose at the seams. When I ask Talia about starting to put aside more time for strategic thinking, she says, “it’s no longer a matter of choice: If I don’t step back and focus on our future, no one else will.”
The opportunity: Finally confronted with a problem that was simmering under the surface for years, Talia is starting to get more strategic and brainstorm real ways to take things off her plate. She is getting serious about delegating and asking for help, giving away a massive slice of work to her team – seeing it as an opportunity to empower them, not hold them back – and as a result, she already notices more time for focusing on the future, proposing ideas for the changes that need to come next.
These three leaders were able to find ways to turn challenging situations into opportunities for learning and growth. They asked for the support they needed – from bosses, direct reports, coaches, and their communities – to build a solid place from which they could observe learning and shift into change. I hope that this lesson can be applied to any of us currently facing a difficulty: Use this moment as the quick path to implement lasting change that will serve you and your organization for the long haul ahead.