I like to start the day with cartoon strips as well as editorial cartoons, and a staple theme in both recently has been the notion of 2020 as a lost year. It feels that way in our personal lives – we may have lost a loved one to the COVID-19 virus, our child-care plans for the weekdays were yanked away, and pleasures such as parties, dining out and vacation travel have dissipated. It also can feel that way in our professional lives, where dreams for our careers or organizational futures may have been put on hold or even vanished.
But I’d argue that for managers, it has not been a year of loss. It has been a year of challenge and growth, unparalleled collectively because almost every manager has been forced to grapple with doing things differently. I noticed that phenomenon in March, but it is continuing even now and won’t end soon.
Indeed, more headaches have been piled on with the current concern over systemic racism, a formidable problem for many leaders. Reopenings have not decreased the managerial angst but added new challenges. Government officials announce their plans with very little notice, the details can be obscure, and managers must, once again, quickly respond.
It’s important, individually and collectively, to celebrate this year of managerial challenge. But beyond celebrating, we need to actually fully accept its depth and scope without expecting some magical quick escape around the corner. By April, many managers I know were already anticipating the end of this special challenge, viewing themselves as in the middle of a two- or three-month interval that would conclude with reopenings. But in one way or another, this collective managerial challenge will continue probably until early next spring, at best, with the economy uncertain; the shadow of further virus outbreaks and accompanying curtailment in activity likely; and many enterprises – perhaps your own – sliding into the deep red or worse. “We are all starring in a play that has no third act in sight,” Jenny Blake writes in a book of essays on the pandemic by consultants and advisors, Leadership in a Time of Crisis.
With that in mind, I have two suggestions. The first is to think of yourself in a crucible, a melting pot that will reshape you. Warren Bennis, a leadership authority until his death in 2014, and Robert Thomas of the Accenture Institute for Strategic Change applied that concept to management when they set out in 2002 to study leaders at the age extremes of modern organizations – Geeks and Geezers, as the book was titled. Each leader interviewed – young or old – had undergone at least one intense, transformational experience, such as being mentored, mastering a martial art, climbing a mountain, losing an election and spending a year in a foreign country.
They all created meaning out of their crucible experience. “The ability to process new experiences, to find their meaning and to integrate them into one’s life is the signature skill of leaders,” the authors noted.
This time, we’re all in the melting pot together. Make the most of your crucible by accepting the situation and learning from it. Treat it as a supreme challenge. Treat it as a learning journey – a gain, not an unfortunate lost year.
It would be wise – even if initially intimidating – to ask others to join you in this journey through a peer-to-peer sharing group. Often called mastermind groups but perhaps better described as leadership learning groups, these involve people in similar situations – CEOs, entrepreneurs, middle managers or non-profit leaders – meeting regularly to share their joys, frustrations and latest predicaments.
I’d recommend diversity of mind but also, contrary to the homogeneous way the groups often form – business CEOs with business CEOs, financial advisers with financial advisers – diversity of positions and types of organizations. A non-profit executive, academic leader or business owner can all benefit from being with people different from themselves as well as people in similar situations. Keep it to eight to 10 people so everyone can be heard but enough people that when the inevitable last-minute cancellations come in busy times, there is still a strong core left.
The group must, of course, be premised on complete confidence. Trust can build surprisingly quickly as people share openly, but it will only continue if those confidences stay within the group.
Usually these groups meet around food – a quick breakfast before work, a leisurely Saturday brunch, a Sunday evening together or even a weekend once a year at a cottage. These days, Zoom is the more common meeting place, and that opens up options. The meetings will be quicker without the ordering of food and eating. If quicker, they can be held more frequently in these perplexing days. And you are not bound by geography; a member of my own group who left the country for another job can now re-join us.
Yes, you have friends, colleagues and families who offer you support. But if you have another year of challenge ahead in this COVID-19 crucible, I’d strongly suggest finding others to assist your learning and satisfy your emotional need for understanding from like-minded souls.
- At Netflix, “farming for dissent” is a formal practice in which employees run their innovative ideas by colleagues and have them report candidly on a Google Doc that’s available for everyone to see what’s wrong with it.
- In single-issue negotiations, ask the other party: “How does my offer compare to the minimum price you would be willing to accept?” Research by academics Michael Schaerer, Martin Schweinsberg and Roderick Swaab found that action leads to a handy psychological anchor around which settlement can be achieved with both parties winning.
- Instead of looking to explain why there is a pay gap in your organization, acknowledge that it is completely unacceptable for one group to be paid more than another for doing the same job, says Susanna Kempe, CEO of the Laidlaw Foundation.
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