Advancing Executive Development June 30, 2020

When Best Practices Go Out the Window, Lead with a Fresh Mindset

By Sue Olson HR Consultant & Board Member

I’m deeply passionate about mentoring. At a time of crisis, where teams are feeling disconnected and stressed, leaders can lean on basic mentoring skills to remain connected and engaged with their teams. 

One of the best experiences I’ve had over the past year was serving as a mentor to high school students participating in a program called Build.org. Build’s experiential, entrepreneurship-based curriculum ignites the power of youth in under-resourced communities. But in mid-March, the need to shelter-in-place turned the Build model upside down. I had to throw out everything I’d done and start with a fresh mindset. 

However, crisis creates opportunity. While the change was jarring at first, I’m proud of what I’ve learned and how I was able to leverage my professional experience with my personal passion for mentorship—and vice versa. The following are fundamental lessons and best practices that apply to leaders at all levels. As we lead in a time of crisis, leading with empathy and building trust with your team is more important than ever. Here are four principles for healthy leadership:

  • Values 
  • Trust 
  • Connection and Engagement
  • Adjusting Expectations and Outcomes

Lead with your values

At Build, we refer to these six critical skills as “Spark Skills”—Collaboration, Communication, Grit, Innovation, Problem Solving, and Self-Management. These are skills all of us can lean on in tough times. I reminded them that showing up, completing homework, and giving a final presentation were ways they could demonstrate self-management and grit. 

In companies, values and behaviors should anchor us even when everything else around us is changing. Lead with your values and behaviors—they remain consistent when everything else becomes adaptable. For example, if a company’s value is transparency, increase your communication practices. Communicate frequently, clearly, and on the difficult issues people and teams are reckoning with now and in the future. As leaders, we must communicate and support our communication with intentional actions and results. People are watching what we do and will make decisions based on how we lead now and in the future. 

Check ON people first (and IN on them second)

Way before we knew there was going to be a pandemic and a reckoning on racism in our nation, I built trust with others by first asking about their lives, friends, family, sports, and pets. This is my way of checking ON them. Only after that would I check IN on their progress and see how I could best support them.

Trust is a foundation in all healthy relationships, personal and professional. If you’re a people leader, check ON your people. This is a time to lead with humility and empathy and to build trust.

Connect and Engage

When we made the switch to distance learning, I doubted my ability to keep my group engaged. Students had been home all day with plenty of distractions. But I tried new creative ways to encourage them to show up and be rewarded. I added new touchpoints and created a group text. I send the group one to three texts per week with words of encouragement and gratitude. This maintains their motivation for the weekly call and the program overall.

This translates clearly to how we should lead our remote teams during this time. We must do the same thing for our employees—show up for them and check on them more often than we did in the past. Ask them about their concerns, whether that’s health, economics, work/family balance, anger, or loneliness. Our job is to connect and engage!

Adjust Expectations and Outcomes

Everything has changed. My students’ final requirement of the program is a solo presentation. It’s nerve-wracking in a normal situation. Are they ready? I’m not sure. But I can help them practice, and I can adjust my approach. During our final mentor sessions, I “flipped the script” of mentor/mentee. I gave a short ad hoc presentation and asked each student to share two observations that they liked about my presentation as well as two pieces of feedback where I could improve. This approach stimulated their thinking on how they could prepare and helped them overcome their fears for their final solo presentation. 

Just as we would do with our teams at work, we have to find new ways to engage and inspire. I threw out my “playbooks,” began with a fresh mindset, and used the principles I’d learned at work to lead and inspire my team. I hope these tips can do the same for you.