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Being the leader your team needs during COVID-19 is no easy task. Last week as I was preparing for our team to begin working remotely, I was thinking about how this might work. 

I’m an empty nester, so working from home isn’t nearly as complicated as it was when our daughter was underfoot. However, many of the FTF team members have small children and spouses who are also providing essential services during this time. People are trying to navigate multiple roles—parent, teacher, team member, spouse, adult child to an aging parent and more—but in a much more chaotic environment.

It’s not lost on me that there’s no way it can be business as usual in the weeks to come. I literally can’t expect team members to be at their desk from 8-5 when they’re trying to feed children meals and snacks (then help with cleanup), put younger kids down for naps, and help with schoolwork. Plus, breaking up the latest spat or making sure their kids are not occupying themselves with screens all day long. And laundry. Don’t forget the mountains of laundry.

They’re also spending their energy trying to nurture other relationships in their lives. And they’re helping family members/friends who have lost jobs, are ill or very susceptible to COVID-19 in this challenging landscape. Not to mention, everyone is trying to keep surfaces wiped down to prevent the spread of sickness.

A couple of days ago, I received an email from leadership guru, Patrick Lencioni, that I think is worth sharing. 

He reminded us that right now, we’re all in uncharted waters so we need to be exceedingly human. As leaders/employers, we need to demonstrate real concern for the fears and anxieties people are experiencing both professionally and personally. A lot of people, including those of us who lead companies, feel like we’ve been punched in the gut.

Next, he pointed out that now’s the time to be especially communicative with our team members. Check in on people. Share what you know even if there isn’t a lot of new information. Pass along resources that you think might be helpful to them. (First Things First created a page with resources for self-care, marital care, and parenting specifically to help people during these uncertain times.)

Lencioni also encouraged us to lead with creativity. There’s no way we can do things the way we have always done them, so try new things. You’ve probably already created regular check-in times with your team members. Instead of only talking about work, allow them to share how they’re being creative at home, give them the chance to share stories, movies, games, and resources they’ve found particularly helpful. Your team needs to know you get it. This kind of bonding will bring the team closer long after this crisis is past.

In my experience, great leaders don’t see themselves as better than the people on their team. Instead, they surround themselves with team players who are passionate about the mission and understand that successful work depends on the success of the team. Now’s not the time to only look out for self, but to recognize that we’re all in this together. Even in and especially in times of unprecedented loss, the leader sets the tone for how the team moves forward. 

Probably all of us who lead are concerned about how we’re going to pay bills and make payroll over time. No doubt, income and donations will be less and billable hours will decrease, but remembering the human factor will help. Pushing people harder won’t make things better. Our employees will remember how they were treated during this crisis.

Lencioni closed his email with these wise words: 

“What you should avoid is seeming cold or impersonal in the name of ‘business as usual,’ or being absent or inconsistent in the name of ‘giving people space,’ or being afraid to try something new. These unprecedented times call for you to stretch beyond your normal comfort zones and be even more vulnerable than usual. Six months from now, you’ll look back and be glad you did.”

As the CEO, I know the FTF team is looking to me to lead through this time. I honestly have no idea what the future holds. I do know for this moment in time, I can be gracious with folks as they try to figure out how they will juggle everything. Nobody’s schedule is going to look the same.

I have to recognize that some of our team members are early birds and some are night owls. Some people need total quiet to work and others can work through the noise, no problem. Giving them some flexibility to accomplish tasks is key. People are already super stressed, weary, and anxious. Adding to that will only make them more unproductive and decrease the bottom line. With these things in mind, I’m looking for ways to help bring calm as we continue to serve people through our work by making one wise decision at a time.

Image from Unsplash.com

“Every day that passes, I have more respect for you working mamas. I mean, I already had respect… but lawdy. Doing this and then waking up to go work a job for 8 hours and then come home to take care of baby and do it all over again… you guys are heroes. And with more than one kid, Tam! I love you and am in awe of how you do it all.”

I received this text on a random Thursday from my best friend Steph, a new mom on an extended maternity leave. Over the past couple months the texts between us have shifted to a flurry of questions about all things baby. But this text wasn’t unusual or out of the ordinary, in fact, it is pretty normal for us. Because, as cheesy as it sounds, a mutual love and respect for one another grounds our relationship, and we openly encourage and appreciate each other as often as we can. 

Steph and I have been best friends for 19 years. (The average friendship only lasts 7 years, according to a 2009 Dutch study.) We’ve endured the angsty high school days, the “wild” college parties, toxic boyfriends, first jobs, devastating funerals, marrying the loves of our lives, unexpected job losses and the great transition into motherhood. In other words, we’ve had our share of ups and downs. Throughout it all, our friendship has been to the brink of extinction and back. So what’s made our friendship last this long and allowed us both to thrive as individuals?

In high school, before texting was really even a thing, we used to keep a notebook that we’d trade between each other, writing our deepest thoughts and secrets, spilling our hopes and fears and questions about life and love. We’d reply to each other with encouragement or advice, and then proceed to talk about our own problems again and again. It’s no wonder that the sentiment continued for years and years. Our friendship started off with honest and open vulnerability from the second we met.

One summer in college, we were both experiencing heart-wrenching breakups. Together, we channeled our despair into hope by creating a collage of encouragement. We scribbled quotes, phrases, and advice we wished we could tell ourselves before things went so wrong. Like, “Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.” We worked together, piecing scraps of magazine photos and letters onto a black mounting board that I had leftover from an art project. When it was all done, the closeness we felt experiencing mutual heartbreak but also mutual empowerment that we would be okay bonded us together even more.  

As life threatened to get in the way of our thriving friendship by bringing jobs, husbands, and kids, we decided to be intentional about keeping our communication alive. In fact, we text each other almost every day. Sometimes we need an outlet to vent our frustrations. Sometimes we need advice and sometimes we need to share the embarrassing thing that just happened to us. The level of trust between us is off the charts. We have and will always allow each other to be our true, authentic selves with no judgment. 

The strong foundation we built in the beginning has allowed us to grow and change as individuals while still maintaining our relationship. Over the years, we’ve actually brought out the best in one another. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not perfect. We’ve had arguments and said or done hurtful things to each other. But really, what relationship doesn’t go through rough patches? We have apologized, forgiven and grown from those obstacles. We’ve become each other’s biggest fan, confident and “person.”  

“When the character of a man is not clear to you, look at his friends.” This Japanese proverb rings so true. Your friends shape who you are. They have tremendous influence over the person you are becoming. So, want to thrive in life and friendship? Build up your friendships that are positive, authentic and inspiring. Surround yourself with people who pour love, time, energy, and acceptance into you. And do the same for them. 

Everyone has bad days and faces challenges in life, and we all need encouragement to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes in our efforts to be helpful and to avoid awkwardness, we say things like, “Look at the bright side of things,” or “Think positive.” While well-intentioned, the words may not be super helpful. We need to be more supportive.

The reality is, allowing people to be vulnerable, open and honest about where they are can be a real gift. We live in a world where 1 in 4 people struggles with anxiety about different aspects of life. Just telling them to be positive or pointing out what we see as the “silver lining” does not provide a solution or make things better for them.

What might be more helpful than mere words is your presence as they walk the road.

Acknowledge the reality at hand by being there and by saying, “I can tell this is so hard,” or “In the midst of the storm, it is hard to see past all the challenges.” Asking, “What can you do for yourself today that will be comforting as you try and sort things out?” can also make a world of difference in how they view the situation.

Whitney Hawkins Goodman, licensed marriage and family therapist, posted a graphic on Instagram containing common positive statements that are meant to be helpful, but might not necessarily be beneficial to someone who is really struggling. She contrasted those statements with ones that offer validation and hope instead.

Instead of saying, “See the good in everything,” Goodman suggests trying, “It’s probably really hard to see any good in this situation.

We’ll make sense of it later.” Or, instead of, “Just be positive,” what about, “I know there’s a lot that could go wrong. What could go right?” The truth is, it’s super hard to see the good in anything when you literally can’t see your way out of the pit. With these statements, you aren’t trying to sugarcoat the problem, and you are giving them the opportunity to consider whether there is potential for something good to happen.

Think about the hard times in your own life. Sometimes it doesn’t feel safe to express yourself because you aren’t sure how another person will respond. What we are looking for in moments like this is empathy. 

It can be uncomfortable to see someone you care about struggling. What you really want to do is fix the problem, but you can’t and usually you shouldn’t. In the midst of not being sure what to say or do, our tendency is to “Don’t just sit there; Do something.” Perhaps in this instance we should turn the tables and say, “Don’t do something; Just sit there. 

It’s freeing for both parties if you are able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and get into the trenches with them, even if you can’t fix it for them.

However, you can listen, hold their hand and help them find perspective. In doing so, you are allowing them to feel what they feel without inadvertently being judgmental or condescending, and that is powerful.

Sometimes we underestimate the power of just showing up. You don’t have to have all the right words. Nor do you have to figure out best next steps. It’s OK not to be OK sometimes.

This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on April 21, 2019.

When Susan Packard was 25 and working in a sales position at Home Box Office, she saw an opportunity to advance in the organization.

“I went to my boss, Bill Grumbles, and told him I thought I was the right person for the position,” says Packard, co-founder of HGTV and author of New Rules of the Game: 10 Strategies for Women in the Workplace. “He paused, looked at me and said, ‘Susan, do you want to run a company some day?’ I replied yes. He proceeded to tell me why I did not want to take that particular position and educated me on the types of jobs that would best position me for my future aspirations.”

That was the first of many educational moments for Packard as she began her ascent to the C-suite. She went on to be founder of Scripps Network Interactive and co-founder of HGTV.

“A few years ago, a friend of mine said she thought my story was interesting and I ought to consider writing a book for women on navigating the workplace,” Packard says. “The more I thought about it and the more time I spent mentoring women in the workplace, I realized my friend was right. There are many lessons I have learned through the years that could be beneficial for other working women.”

Packard’s book serves as a toolkit of behaviors and strategies to help women advance in the workplace. She refers to the behaviors and strategies as gamesmanship. 

“I talk about why it is a bad idea for women to act like men, the importance of composure, why women need to create a network around them of people they trust, how to dress and why competition isn’t a bad thing,” Packard says.

Another strategy in Packard’s book is the art of brinksmanship to gain an advantage without clearly stating your goal. In poker, this is the art of reading “the tell.”

For example, Packard recalls taking her HGTV CEO to meet with the head of Tele-Communications, the cable industry’s leader at the time. They arrived for the meeting and had to wait two hours. When the meeting finally began, the guy stated his company’s position. Packard believed it was ridiculous. About fifteen minutes into the meeting, Packard stood up and declared the meeting over. When her CEO asked why the meeting went so badly, Packard replied, “It did not go badly. We actually won that round. They wanted us to beg. We needed to tilt the power in our favor.”

It took two years, but they eventually closed the deal. Packard contends it is that kind of dealmaking that helps perfect the art of business brinkmanship.

The book cover has a queen chess piece with a king chess piece in the shadows. Packard explains that the queen is the most powerful piece on the chess board. She is the only one who can move any direction on the board. Similarly, women in the workplace are adaptable, mentally fluid, and typically can juggle a lot of balls simultaneously. Women have unique opportunities to shine powerfully and positively. There’s no need to hide behind the shadows of men in the workplace.