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Managers have certain moments when their skills are tested to the ultimate – the busy season, or during a takeover bid, or when a new challenger with a superior offering enters the marketplace. But in the past few weeks – and the weeks, if not months, to come – all managers, in every field, at all levels, are being tested, simultaneously, as their operations must adjust, usually quite radically, to the pandemic threat. Our whole world is being turned upside down.

We have heard much in recent years about the need for disruption and change. Now we have it – but managers are not in control, they’re trying to make the best of a bad situation. And even when the situation offers opportunities, such as for manufacturers of disinfectant, it requires all their skills to respond.

This is the management challenge – the management crisis – of our lifetime. Some organizations are facing tougher decisions than companies have tackled since the Second World War or even the Great Depression.

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At work, most of us try to find an acceptable balance between some conflicting tensions. We want to do well personally. We want the organization to do well. We want to help others – our colleagues, and the clients we serve. And we want to be good for the community and world – be socially responsible, as much as possible. That balance is being challenged in various ways by COVID-19. Donna Gillespie, head of the economic development commission in Kingston, Ont., where I live, tells of the small-business owner who moaned: “I’m conflicted between moral responsibility and going bankrupt.”

Our national and provincial leaders face such dilemmas: Massive death or massive loss of income for citizens and companies? And many managers face excruciating decisions in their own bailiwick, where all options are grim.

Management is about making things happen – making things better. Now it’s about adjusting, making do, limiting the damage, and responding to an out-of-control dynamic. Managers like to plan. Now we’re all making it up as we go along. Managers like some semblance of control. Now everything is out of control.

There is no time for a learning and development program to boost your skills. What you have is what you’ve got. But you need to be at your best, so let’s give that some thought.

First, remember that stress brings out the worst in us – our derailers. Be alert to signs these negatives are manifesting themselves more frequently.

I’m not a big fan of weekly reviews, but consider them vital in the frenzy of the moment. At some point in what passes for the weekend, stop and assess what happened last week and what has to happen next week. Decide the main priorities.

Then take time to assess the staff situation. Someone who works in a hospital was saying to me, “Nobody feels management is on our side right now.” So consider whether your staff might feel the same about you – and how you can change that perception or reality. Managers tend to isolate themselves in tough times as things get busy, and they don’t want to alarm others. You believe what you are doing is right for the organization as a whole. But how will others know? Be visible (even if it’s at a distance). Talk, talk, talk – and talk some more. Even companies closing temporarily can do that well or do it poorly.

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In particular, look at your direct reports: How can you find time for a good moment with each in the next week – a chance to chat about family in these tense times, admit some vulnerability, a positive comment on their performance, or asking what they need from you.

Don’t feel you have to do it all. Having to make the toughest decisions since the Second World War can give you a swollen ego and a swaggering demeanour. What can you delegate this week – not just the routine dreary stuff, but the important stuff? Has the crisis changed decision-making so everything has moved upstream? What can be pushed back downstream?

I remember when our organization was acquired on the brink of the 1990 recession. We had never had a bonus program, but the new organization had a generous one. However, bonuses were now disappearing as profits disappeared. The long-time managers would routinely complain they were working harder than ever and not being rewarded. This is a good time to express appreciation for your team – they too are working harder than ever (or if sidelined, feeling unappreciated) and you should honour them.

Finally, end your weekly review by thinking about rejuvenation. This is not a time for work-life balance, but you need to find moments where you can rejuvenate and maintain your health for the battles ahead.

Cannonballs

  • You may be facing tough decisions. But thinking of which are reversible – and when – and which are irreversible can be a useful technique.
  • We have all become experts on viruses these days. But we aren’t. Don’t exaggerate your knowledge. People’s lives may depend on that.
  • Consultant Henna Inam notes that not feeling in control can create dysfunctional leadership behaviours such as micromanaging.

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