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What the Pandemic Taught Me About Leadership

When COVID hit, as a leader working remotely at Cisco, I immediately started thinking about my team. How would we handle working together through quarantine? How do successful managers operate during times of crisis? How would we maintain our team culture when we weren’t sure when we’d see each other again? Like many managers, I scrambled to find ways to support my direct reports at first — I loosened deadlines and I sent each team member a LEGO kit, and they appreciated both — but like everyone else, in the early days, I thought my responses would be temporary. As the pandemic wore on, I adapted my management style with the assumption that this might just be our new normal at work. 

Now, more than a year later, I’ve found that many of the changes I thought of as “crisis responses” have grown into successful practices that I want to leverage permanently. In 2020, I made the choice to respond to the pandemic by doubling down on empathy — and since then, I’ve discovered that the more time I invest in my team’s well-being, the more productive and engaged they are. As we’ve slowly adapted to our new normal, we’ve discovered better ways of relating, cooperating, and getting work done. Now, I want to make sure that sticks.

These are the three biggest lessons I’ve discovered so far through the pandemic, and how I’ve put them into practice with my team.

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Fostering Team Culture Takes Hard, Intentional Work

Creating and maintaining a culture across a team is, obviously, easier said than done. When we first went into quarantine, I knew I wanted to step up my culture efforts, but didn’t know where to start. I saw other leaders struggling to keep their own teams’ morale together. On my own team, I was keenly aware that not everyone was the same — some of my direct reports are introverts who thrive with solitude, while others do better when they’re frequently connecting with people. 

So I started with empathy. Each of us was handling things in a different way, and I wanted to create space for that. In team meetings, and with individual one-on-ones, I adopted a few new practices. 

  • I made it a standard practice to openly talk about our mental and emotional capacity. My one-on-one meetings have always started with time to socially connect, but now I use them as an opportunity for us to check in on each other. On the days when I’m struggling at work, or having a hard time with current events, I say so. I invite the same candor from my team, and it’s always helpful. When we kick off our one-on-ones with an honest conversation about where we’re at, the work parts always go better. And through that, we align our work to our capacity. Understanding what each of my team members is going through also helps me know when and where to offer help at work.

  • I turned giving feedback and recognition into more formal, structured practices. In the "before times," I relied on in-person interactions to have some of my most important conversations. Communicating tone is so much easier face to face! I gave plenty of feedback and recognition, but my approach was often scattered, because I was trying to balance my in-person and virtual conversations. Quarantine prompted me to lean in to scheduling and planning how I give feedback and recognition — because in isolation, my team needed to be seen more than ever. I hold time in my one-on-ones, as well as team meetings, to provide specific feedback: what worked, and why, as well as what our current gaps and opportunities are. And I plan ahead of time the specific things I want to share for each person, which helps make sure I’m managing equitably.

  • I started being transparent about all my efforts. One of the main messages I conveyed to my team throughout 2020 and 2021 has been that we are all having a hard time, myself included. I made a point of expressing that, and also sharing my goals and my strategies. When my team heard me say things like, “I want to be more open about our emotional capacity, and make feedback more structured to help make sure we’re still connected as colleagues and human beings,” they saw more about what I was trying to do, and that prompted them to be part of the solution. Maintaining culture became a “we” thing instead of a “me” thing.

Seeing how the team has grown as we learned to build and maintain our culture in the time since, I can’t help but ask myself: Why would we ever stop doing these things? 

During Times of Challenge, Double Down on Professional Development

I’ve always been passionate about helping my team members develop, but the pandemic gave me an opportunity to dedicate more time to it. 

Professional development, and career development, are both loaded terms. To many managers, they’re code for “You’re supposed to send your people to conferences and give them online training,” which is sort of like being asked to serve a feast and insisting that serving a single side dish is enough. 

I’m a big believer in helping team members develop through goals and experiences. Side dishes are great, but when it comes to my team, it’s all about the main course: the skills they want to develop and the experiences they want to have. Here are a few ways I worked to make that happen:

  • I connect individual goal-setting with business objectives. I get that goal-setting with teams is Management 101; what changed is that when we all lost the chance to be in the same building, it became a lot harder for my team to get visibility into potential opportunities. They also had more asynchronous time to dedicate to goals. So I started working with each of them, looking at our team’s business goals together, and then looking for ways to weave in opportunities for them to work toward their individual goals. Our shared isolation helped me realize if I’m not helping them see how and where they could level-up professionally, they might not get enough visibility to that.

  • I leaned into being a talent broker. Like goal-setting, this wasn’t a new thing, but in quarantine, I got more active about helping my team members find experiences on projects or teams that align with their next career steps. Sometimes that meant making an introduction to another team so they could contribute to a project sprint; sometimes it meant adjusting who got what work based on who wanted to be challenged. What COVID changed is that I didn’t have as many organic opportunities to help my team explore options, so I had to set aside time for it, and be much clearer with everyone about my efforts.

  • I invested in my own soft skills. As I looked at my own management approaches, I thought about what was working, and where I wasn’t getting traction — and then went after coaching and learning opportunities. I started checking in with peer leaders from different teams, and reaching out more to work on skills like negotiating, advocating, and leading equitably. On some level I’ve always known that soft skills are critical to effective leadership, but I feel like going through COVID together really proved it to me. The days where I was most effective, the projects that were most successful — they got that way because we focused on being human beings first. 

Self-Care Requires Time and Structure

The most important lesson was also the hardest for me: For self-care to work, you need to set aside time for it, and have a plan. These are the habits I worked to adopt during quarantine; it’s still hard work for me, so I’m not done, but I’m inspired by the outcomes that I’m seeing. 

  • I treat self-care time and work time as equally important. We’ve all gotten meeting requests that steamroll over our existing “Do Not Disturb” or “Focus Time” appointments, or been invited to meetings and wondered, “Do I really need to be there?” And the trick there is defending your time.

    With my team, I make a point of defending their time, and protecting the hours they set aside to look after themselves. I need them doing their best work, and they can’t really do that if they’re being pulled away from investing in themselves. Sometimes that means making meetings smaller or creating meeting-free days, and sometimes it means telling other managers that they’ll have to wait. That’s not super fun, but it sure beats having a team that’s burned out and fatigued.
  • I treat time off as a requirement. Every place I’ve worked has talked about time off as a benefit, but in my eyes, it’s not a “nice to have;” it’s an essential part of thinking clearly, getting perspective, and managing how much energy we have to bring to work. So with my team, I share my mindset and expectation that we all need to take PTO, and that it’s as much a priority as the work we do. I don’t micromanage when they take PTO, but I am clear with them that it’s an expectation. (The hardest part about this is modeling it — but that’s been healthy for me, too.)

Embracing the Effective

I miss being able to see my team in person, and I miss the communication that happens when we’re all in the same space. And at the same time, we’ve turned into a completely different kind of team now that we’re entirely virtual — one with systems for empathy, and new norms for transparency. And long after the pandemic is gone, I plan on keeping it that way. 

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