4 C’s To Leading In Times Of Uncertainty

Written by: Brady Drake

Photo by Kayleigh Omang

In March, I visited with Mike Meagher and Tami Kilzer from Sagency, an Executive Coaching and Search firm in Fargo. I wanted to explore how they help their clients create job benchmarks and assess talent against those benchmarks for hiring, coaching, and succession planning. Fast forward a short week later and everything in our world has changed. As editor of a business magazine, I too am functioning in a time of considerable uncertainty. My questions to Mike and Tami shifted to how leaders can be effective, especially in the new environment COVID-19 has forced upon so many organizations.

By the time this article hits print, work could be drastically different than it was last month for many companies. There have been many articles about technology and communication during the COVID-19 health and economic crisis. Beyond those things, what would you say is the most important thing for a manager or leader to focus on during this time?

Mike: Stay committed to the mindset that your number one job as a leader is to help your people and teams maximize potential. Yes, there will be critical decisions about technology, finances, and operations during this crisis and beyond. However, navigating the current environment will demand a focus of helping individuals and teams thrive. 

The world has already been changing at breakneck speed. This creates a dynamic referred to as a “VUCA world”. VUCA is a military acronym that stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Today, every leader in the world is facing unprecedented levels of VUCA. Many business models will be tweaked or overhauled. Leaders will be tested and stretched. Organizations will rely on exceptional teams to survive and thrive in this environment. Success will require wisdom, boldness, and genuine care for people. 

Tami: Many companies are navigating the move to virtual workplaces. Responses, changes, and new solutions will be constant. Amid all this change, we must remember our priority is our people. We aren’t just moving assets or capital around to meet new challenges. These are humans with fears and anxieties, many of whom are looking for hope in a time of uncertainty. Most importantly, they still have incredible potential. 

Mike: We may not see it directly, but leadership significantly influences whether or not human potential is maximized; whether or not individuals and teams do extraordinary things during extraordinary times. The success of your organization depends on high levels of engagement, performance, and teamwork from everyone. Putting time, attention, and energy into serving your people and helping them succeed will return dividends.

So, what are the best things a leader can do to make sure they are caring for and engaging their team, especially if they are in a virtual environment?

Mike: There isn’t a silver bullet for leadership effectiveness. And here is why: leadership is all about how you bring yourself into circumstances. As a leader, your best asset is yourself. How you show up, moment by moment, will define your leadership impact, now and in the future. Your leadership can be a stabilizing force, helping people feel safe and free to do their best work. Conversely, ineffective leadership can create an environment of fear, insecurity, and distrust, which will erode short-term and long-term performance significantly.

You have a leadership model you use with your clients. Is it relevant during this time?

Mike: Yes, we help our clients leverage a model to engage their teams in a deeply human way, leading to tangible results. The model works well when business is operating smoothly, and it becomes even more critical during an extended crisis. See the model below:

The People-Wise Leadership Model is used by Sagency to illustrate effective leadership.

The People-Wise Leadership Model is used by Sagency to illustrate effective leadership.

It seems like Connect would be critical in a time like this. What are your suggestions for leaders whose teams are settling into virtual work? 

Tami: “Connect“ is about building trusted relationships with team members. Trust is the backbone of any enduring organization and a catalyst for engagement. Clear, transparent, vulnerable, and two- way communication builds trust. Right now, leaders need to confront reality with assurance and confidence. One of the best ways to connect and build trust is to show people you care about them as a person and value them because of who they are, not just what they do for the organization. You can show care by being curious about your team member’s needs, offering support, and providing assurances when fears are intense.

Sagency tip:
Send a handwritten thank you card or make a video with your smart phone and send it via email or text. Make it meaningful by specifically telling the recipient what you noticed, why it stood out to you, and how it impacted you and others. You’ll be amazed at how much people will appreciate this. They will re- read or re-watch your act of appreciation many times to re- energize. Genuine and specific recognition literally provides a mental boost to the recipient.

Co-create is an interesting title of the second part of the model. What does that mean and what tips do you have for a team that has suddenly found themselves functioning in a virtual environment? 

Mike: Co-create is about enabling people to create the future with you. First, make sure you are tapping into the team and organization’s shared purpose and values. Authentic shared purpose and values anchor us in something bigger than ourselves. They shape our behavior and compel us to action.

Hold a virtual meeting with this simple agenda:

  1. How do we more fully pursue our purpose/mission, given the circumstances?
  2. How do we live out our values in these times? What behaviors should we expect from each other?
  3. What will we do, with intention, to become a more cohesive and healthier team during this time? What are our team norms?

Encourage healthy conflict and robust debate. You don’t want everyone to agree on everything. Use open and honest dialogue to get the best ideas on the table and then help the team commit to a unified path forward. 

Then, it’s time to co-create strategies and action plans. Start by engaging your team with the following questions:

  1. What is most important right now?
  2. How can we complete our regular responsibilities with excellence?
  3. Outside of our day jobs, what else do we need to accomplish that we must set aside time and attention to achieve?
  4. Should the way we keep score change? What measurements will help us know if we are making progress on what is most important?

It is critical that every team and every teammate has crystal clear expectations about what it means and takes to be successful. With your guidance, give your team the first shot at creating those expectations and then fill in the blanks. Many leaders are surprised by how well their teams create the level of clarity that drives significant progress, and this leads us to the third “C” in the model.

It seems like many leaders will worry about accomplishing goals in the midst of this new reality. How does Carry Out help with this?

Mike: Carry Out is about focused action. This part of the model is about holding ourselves accountable for hitting the goals we agreed to in the Co-create stage. The leader plays an active role in creating an environment where expectations remain clear and all team members have visibility into progress against goals. We recommend a weekly (virtual) huddle. During this quick meeting, every team member will share what they accomplished last week to move the needle on the shared goal(s). Teammates will also share what they plan to do in the coming week to make progress against the goal. Daily and weekly progress is a powerful engagement stimulus. You can also set aside time to discuss new developments, potential opportunities, and common barriers that may affect your team. Since the leader doesn’t control everything, teams are free to respond with more agility to changing circumstances. Proactively nurture team agility and resiliency in this VUCA world. It will continue to come in handy. 

Tami: It’s important to note that leaders should avoid the temptation to micromanage. This may be a time to give more autonomy. When possible, give employees permission to choose when and how they will deliver the results expected of them. What works for them as they balance children schooling at home, taking care of elderly parents, etc. is different now. Going back to the first C, Connect, check in to ask how they are doing and what you can help with, but employees will be happier and perform better when they have autonomy and feel trusted.

The fourth C is Coach. Coaching is a term that can have different meanings to different people, what do you mean by it and what tips do you have?

Mike: With Coach, a leader invests in the growth and development of others. An effective coach helps a player achieve greatness in ways even the player didn’t think was possible. The best way to start is by holding regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings with each of your direct reports. Get curious. Ask how they are doing. What are they enjoying? What isn’t going well? What barriers do they need help thinking through? Instead of directing, ask thoughtful questions to help your people come up with their own solutions to challenges. Provide candid and timely feedback on performance. Most importantly, stay in the moment and show that you are listening by summarizing what you hear them say.

Ultimately, we hope leaders make additional effort to lead with vision and empathy, remembering that humans have a tremendous capacity to build an optimal path forward together.

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Brady is the Editorial Director at Spotlight Media in Fargo, ND.