In uncertain times, great leaders are born, developed and shine. But what makes a great leader? How can you continue to make good decisions as information changes daily? We asked three Kelley School of Business management professors at IUPUI to find out the most important things leaders can do right now.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate
Jim Flynn, Clinical Professor of Management: “Make sure people know you’re there—even now, weeks after the initial crisis started. Keep in touch with your employees, your customers. Make sure they know you’re there; you’re thinking about them. It doesn’t need to be every day, but little reminders are good. Make sure your communications are short and to the point. Make sure you convey not only information but, also, your concern. We’re all in this together; everyone’s confusion in uncertainty may be different, but we’re all feeling it. When you don’t know something, say you don’t know it.
In 1999, there was a big explosion at the Ford Motor River Rouge plant in Michigan. Bill Ford, who was CEO at the time, immediately went there. He conveyed a sense of unity. It was the mere fact he showed up and talked about how they were one company, and they were all the Ford family. Just being there showed good leadership.
Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison sent out six steps of leadership I think are smart: anticipate, navigate, communicate (continually), listen (to what you don’t want to hear), learn (to apply in the future) and lead (improve yourself to elevate others).
Phil Cochran, Professor of Management: I think you need to be in communication with your top management team continuously, ideally using a system like Zoom or another teleconferencing system. You need to prep someone with different messages for different levels, and if you have advanced planning, you can work to change operations as you need to, which is changing day by day. In factories, for example, ensuring there’s appropriate social distancing or taking everyone’s temperature before they come in. If you’re Uber or Lyft, sanitizing cars between passengers. Taking precautions when delivering food or groceries. All these ideas need to be decided and communicated in a relatively short amount of time.
Jim Flynn: Speaking of communication, I met with all my classes even before we started remote courses, just to meet with them. I talked very little about the courses, but I updated them on communications from the school. I thought it would be nice to see each other and hear from some of their classmates who they haven’t been around in a while.
As you go through crises or perceived crises, you start to realize there’s a pattern to how you personally react to them. You learn you can only control what you can control. For everything else, if you don’t know, say you don’t know. That’s what I told the students: We’re all working through this together, in different ways, but we’re all in this together.
- Step back, continually evaluate your situation and plan for multiple scenarios
Ken Wendeln, Clinical Associate Professor Emeritus of Management: When you look at the elements of good leadership, you have to ask yourself, ‘What is your purpose? What are you trying to accomplish?’ Ask this so you’re making good decisions in the context of what you’re trying to do. Think of a pilot flying an airplane. The main purpose is to get passengers safely from one destination to another. Everything else you do follows in that vein. You have to have purpose first, and you have to understand what you’re trying to make decisions for.
Phil Cochran: The most important step is to realize just how much the environment has changed in the last few weeks and to start thinking rapidly about the new normal. Consider the environment we’re currently operating in and how businesses can pivot. Businesses have to look at how much things have changed and how rapidly they have changed. By focusing on the new future, leaders can do a much better job of calming everyone down.
You need to lay out several possible scenarios. Sit down with your senior leadership team and continually brainstorm what each of those futures might look like. Work out a range of scenarios, maybe two, four or six, and then, consider what each of those would look like. Continually go back and ask: What are the implications now for my organization? You may also be thinking: How can we become more flexible? Maybe we make different products, like ventilators or masks? Companies, and even people with sophisticated enough 3D printers, actually started making these. I also think we will see, especially with these giant distribution warehouses like Amazon, an increase in the number of robots and a decrease in the number of people. Once you get the people out of the warehouse, then you don’t have the contagion issues within the warehouse any longer. I think firms or people who build industrial robots are probably going to see a surge in sales over the next several years.
Ken Wendeln: Step back and ask yourself: What’s really happening here? What choices do we need to be making as a result? Are we making them quickly enough, or are we making too many that are unnecessary? There are some decisions that need to be made more quickly once the situation is understood, but then, you have to step back and look at the other decisions that can be made. Now that we have better information, we’ll be making better choices.
- Focus on others first
Ken Wendeln: I think it’s tremendously important, particularly in crisis situations, to consider what I call ‘humility over hubris.’ Focus on others rather than yourself. I watched the CEO of the Marriott chain in an online video, where he talked about tough decisions that Marriott had to make during these times. You can clearly see his humility and how he cared for his employees as he discussed how they were going to handle this situation.
A good leader is also a good human: They consider others and include others when making decisions. To make good decisions, there has to be trust in both the leader as well as the rest of the people you’re counting on. You really need trust in others to make good decisions in this kind of situation.
I think here is where it’s important to remember again, the importance of focusing on others and looking at the larger picture instead of just doing what you need for yourself. This is where leadership is important, because the leader sets the tone here: ‘Why are we doing what we are doing, so that everybody understands and makes the best out of it?’ When more information comes out or changes, now we have to make other choices as we go forward. How do we move forward with this, rather than become reactionary to it?
- Ask for help when you need it
Ken Wendeln: You really need to ask for help. Decisions don’t just come from the top, so you need to search around for experts and ask them fairly often to help you in making good choices. I think the best way to engage others in making decisions is to ask them good questions, so they can help you in the decision-making process. Then, be a good listener and take their advice if it’s warranted.
- Understand history and lessons learned
Phil Cochran: The really great leaders are those who understand history, who have read extensively and who are familiar with what’s happened in the past. I was Executive Associate Dean at the Kelley School in Indianapolis in 2007 when the swine flu scare happened. I remember sitting in dean’s meetings and discussing how we were going to respond. In the process, a lot of the deans bought a book called The Great Influenza: The [Story of the] Deadliest [Pandemic] in History by John M. Barry. There are lessons that we can learn today from what happened 100 years ago. Great leaders have to rely on their background, their knowledge and, ideally, their reading. Most great leaders are voracious readers.
We’ll get through it, and we’ll be stronger afterwards. Ideally, when this is over, we will start planning for a more resilient future, and we will put into place the types of mechanisms that will help us better weather another pandemic or black swan event. Maybe we will shorten our supply chains, or by building more flexibility into manufacturing, we’ll be better managers in a more uncertain future. If businesses plan properly, we’ll all be a lot better off in the long run.
- Have the courage to make tough decisions
Ken Wendeln: Lastly, you have to have the courage to make decisions. Sometimes you’ve got to have the gut instincts to make decisions without having all of the data you’d love to have simply, because it has to be made on a timely basis. You also need to maintain composure to go through this process at all costs, because people do have to see you. Your employees and customers have to see somebody they can trust, and you have to maintain composure to deal with different viewpoints. I think a good leader will be a good coach, rather than the rescuer in a crisis situation.
Posted by: Teresa Mackin, firstname.lastname@example.org