(originally published on Medium April 4, 2020)
I don’t think March 2020 went like anyone expected. The month started with my team gearing up and hosting a 2 day in-person event. We were hiring two team members and setting up training schedules. I was talking to people about events we’d host in April and May, and we were planning summer promotions. My spouse and I were figuring out how our dog would handle our upcoming move from San Francisco to Denver in about 6 weeks. Fast-forward less than two weeks — The Governor of California has just shut down non-essential businesses and San Francisco is about to announce Shelter-in-Place. Luckily, my spouse and I just arrived in Denver, CO with a Uhaul full of our stuff (and our dog, who did admirably!) after we decided/packed/loaded and left the city in the span of 3 days. Things came together quickly in CO and we found a spot, got the essentials (couch, shower curtain, mac and cheese), and transitioned to quarantining just ahead of the Denver Shelter-in-Place announcement. Now that I’ve arrived and settled back into a routine (sort of), I’ve noticed how leaders are responding to COVID-19 and its effects on their teams. From Texas Roadhouse CEO W. Kent Taylor forgoing his salary for a year, to breweries pausing production to make hand sanitizer, to my team in the Bay Area fitness l, it’s becoming apparent that how leaders respond right now is critical. I’ve had a front row seat to challenges that Bay Area leaders are facing, both before and during this crisis. For the last year, I’ve worked closely with a martial arts academy and women’s wellness center. These leaders responded to COVID-19 with such care for their customers, their team, and their community. I could feel their inherent willingness to be flexible and do whatever needed to be done. We went remote (which luckily means I can still help out!) and the whole team quickly became well-versed in Meeting IDs, join links, and Zoom etiquette (camera on, mic off). Our leaders responded quickly, compassionately, and with precision — encouraging us to find ways to continue adding value for customers to keep our community alive and thriving in adverse times. They met every hardship with optimistic support, willingness to try, and belief that we’d figure it out. The flexibility and ability to roll with the punches that I’ve seen from these leaders makes me pretty certain that this team will continue to succeed regardless. They’ve been real about the struggles, not just glossing over the difficulties and presenting white lies. They shared this raw connection with their team and their customers, presenting the message that we will get through this together. “A distinctive feature of enduring companies is the way their leaders react to moments like these.” Sequoia Capital, Coronavirus: The Black Swan of 2020 memo to Founders & CEOs. Sequoia Capital called it in their March 5 memo to Founders and CEOs Coronavirus: The Black Swan of 2020 where they explained that despite what word-on-the-street was at the time, Coronavirus was going to be a Big Deal. The biggest take-away from this memo is that the founders and companies who are “most adaptable to change” will be the ones to make it out the other side. Your employees are all aware of COVID-19 and are wondering how you will react and what it means for them. False optimism can easily lead you astray and prevent you from making contingency plans or taking bold action. Avoid this trap by being clinically realistic and acting decisively as circumstances change. Demonstrate the leadership your team needs during this stressful time. Sequoia Capital, Coronavirus: The Black Swan of 2020 memo to Founders & CEOs. As a founder, now is one of the most critical points in your leadership journey thus far. You might be shifting product offerings and changing timelines (some within your control, most not), figuring out how to manage your unexpectedly remote team, dealing with shifts in supply lines, unfortunate backtracking on funding and partnerships, or dealing with having to make difficult financial decisions. And to top it all off, everyone is looking at you. Whether or not you have VCs or an established board backing you, the fact remains that no one really knows what’s happening right now. As a founder, leadership coach, and Optimist™ I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and I have a few things to remember when everyone is looking at you. 1. Remember why you started Chances are you decided to start a company because you are passionate about an idea. You found a solution for people and have the answers they need. Maybe you need the freedom of being in charge and making your schedule (raises hand). Whatever it is, there is a reason that you started this company. Now, in the face of adversity, remember why you are doing this. Your purpose for doing this can drive you when you want to give up. It’s always there for you to fall back on, even right now. I know, things get busy and we probably don’t take the time to meditate frequently on why we are doing this… but what if we did? Maybe now is a good time to start? 2. Remember that you cannot make a mistake Before you get all “WHAAAaaaAATtTT! That’s not true! I make mistakes all the time!” hold on and let me explain. This is one of the principles by which I live my life and it has given me so much freedom and clarity and comfort. It is my North Star during challenges (ahem, right now). You’re a smart person right? Chances are, when you make decisions (especially those about your business) you have some kind of reason for doing so. You’ve done (or delegated) due diligence. You assessed product-market fit. You got input from others. You researched and whiteboarded. Sometimes, even after all that, things don’t work though. Or maybe there was something you honestly meant to do but that fell through the cracks. Chances are you got busy with other distractions. When this happens, it’s important to remember that this probably wasn’t intentional on your part and you shouldn’t beat yourself up too viciously. You likely didn’t willfully forget to send that email or miss that meeting. Perhaps you could reframe this somehow? This leads us to my next point (which I’d honestly say is the single most important mindset shift for founders) 3. Remember that everything is an opportunity As a leader, you have two choices in responding to things that don’t work or times you “mess up”. You can either get really down, beat yourself up, and give up, or you can draw on my 2 previous suggestions, buck the heck up, and see how this “failure” could be reframed. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Thomas Edison That’s it. You found something that didn’t work. Turns out trying to remember meeting times in your head doesn’t work. One less way to “fail” in the future. Chances are you can assess the weak point and create something even better the next time around. That Thomas Edison quote is one of my favorites (honestly, his recorded quotes are a freaking goldmine, so look them up if you need a boost! 37 of his best quotes here)
Life is a learning experience. Keep that approach and that curiosity and you’ll never “fail” again. 4. Remember that you don’t have to do this alone (and honestly, you shouldn’t) Find some support. We’re all in this together and even if people aren’t facing the same exact problems, they are also facing challenges. Don't isolate yourself, find some support. So, here we are, the first week of April. I’m nowhere near where I expected to be (actually over 1200 miles away, to be honest) and I have no idea what’s coming next. The two things I know for certain is that
we absolutely have to stick together
we have to keep going.
Now is not the time for competition and splitting hairs.
Leaders who focus outward on serving their team and their customers, those adapting and finding ways to add value and support despite what’s happening, are the leaders who will make it through 2020. Let me know if you need any help.