Yesterday was International Day of the Girl, and what a better way to celebrate than talking about leadership in the time of a pandemic from the eyes of three female leaders (Kerry Ramsay of Hello Boss Girl, Jenny Smith of Ray Creative Agency & myself).
This article was originally intended to have a lot more leaders featured (including several MPs, MPPs, Mayors, public sector leaders and private sector leaders), but I never received responses from them except for some “read receipts”. It’s a Pandemic, people’s lives are upside down, I get it, but super frustrating. However, I did get responses from two pretty kick ass women, and decided to throw in my own thoughts as a young leader in the time of a pandemic.
Question 1: How do you think the pandemic has affected your own leadership styles and strategies? How have you had to adapt your leadership style?
- Kerry: My styles/strategies have remained pretty much the same; the leader sets the tone for the room, so remaining positive during the pandemic was key. Offering solutions — but also giving people time to adjust to all the change — has been key during COVID-19. I haven’t really adapted my leadership style, except to be more patient and empathetic I suppose. But I hope I’m always those things! 🙂
- Jenny: The pandemic has been really hard on everyone. But in particular, on leaders. It has affected me in different ways (I might need to invest in a good wig soon due to all my hair falling out!). I am a lot more stressed, I worry about the well-being of my team and I don’t have all the answers. So I’ve had to adapt my approach and style a lot. Plus, it’s hard working from home with teenagers and a husband who is also working from home. Here are some of the things I’ve had to do to adapt my leadership style:
- I’m very transparent. I open up to staff like I’ve never opened up before. I tell them everything, including financial information about the company because when they know how much money we make or lose and what our expenses are, they are more informed and they have a better understanding what we need to do to keep the agency in the black.
- I have daily check-ins with the entire team. We call it the ‘Daily Sanity Check-in,’ where we do a zoom conference for 20 minutes to see what’s happening and to see if everything is okay/needs help.
- I have one on ones with everyone, once a week. It’s time consuming but people appreciate the time.
- I try to be as flexible and accommodating as possible. Every day throws new challenges at me so I have to remember that plans made that day (or even month) prior may not be relevant. Because there is so much uncertainty, planning can sometimes be extremely frustrating.
- Rachael: I’ve definitely softened my approach while still making it known that I have expected standards for myself, subordinates and colleagues. I still have the hard deadlines (mostly because they are essential to effective operations) but tend to give longer times to get it done or more flexibility for how a task is completed. Adaptive leadership is a big thing for me, and I have been using this pandemic to really flex my muscles with this one. The different leadership approaches I’ve needed to use vary by person and by situation. In some cases, I need to be more firm and clear with expectations and deadlines (generally with a little bit of wiggle room) and in others I can say “this is what needs to get done and when, go to it”. It’s helping me be more understanding of what others are going through and also cutting myself just a little bit of slack when I don’t get things right or need a little longer to do something. It’s not perfect, but I work at it constantly.
Question 2: What have you learned about yourself and your followers (or constituents) during this time?
- Kerry: It was a huge advantage that my kids weren’t in elementary school during this pandemic. Both my kids are in high school, so they were pretty self-sufficient which allowed me to focus on my work and pivot as required. That was really a gift, I have to say! Not every day was easy, but it was BY FAR EASIER than for parents of young kids during this difficult time. My hat is off to them all (and the teachers too)!
- Jenny: I have learned that it’s really important to have empathy. People may seem like they are doing okay. Clients may say they are fine. But we all know that Covid has affected people in different ways, on some sort of level. I have also learned that it’s okay to show your human side. It’s okay to get emotional and to shed tears in front of staff. It’s okay to say that you’re having a bad day or that you don’t feel like working. Or that you don’t have all the answers. Sharing these experiences with staff and even with our clients makes people feel better because they are going through hard times too.
- Rachael: That people are remarkably adaptive, and you need to show you care about them as a person and not just as a robot meant for doing a task on autopilot or because you feel the obligation to only based on your position. We’re all going through a global pandemic together, and I honestly don’t know two people who are reacting the same to it. Everyone is different and we need to respect that. Almost everyone’s lives got turned upside down in March, and while some are thriving, others are not. If you don’t know how someone is doing, reach out and ask. 9.9/10 times, they’ll be appreciative that you did. Also, don’t sugar-coat things and don’t be a Debbie-downer constantly either. Life is weird right now, so be realistic. I tell my team that we will get through it because we are an amazingly strong & resilient group but admit that it’s not going always going to be an easy or fun time as we work together through this, but we need to stay together to get through this. It’s an honest answer!
Question 3: What tricks have you discovered to keep you focused on tasks and achieve a relatively decent balance? What do you do to relieve stress?
- Kerry: Routine, routine, routine. I got up at the same time as usual, got dressed, worked out, walked the dog, at my home desk by 8:30 am just like I would on a regular day. I actually love working from home, I can focus so much better. So if anything, I’ve found I’ve thrived during COVID to be honest. At the same time, I have to remember that the world just got 1000% harder for a lot of people, so remaining compassionate and patient with others has gone hand-in-hand with sticking with my routine. Not everyone has had the same luxury being able to create their own schedule during this messy time. As for managing stress, my answer is always nature. From May to now, I spend all the time I can at the cottage (which also breaks up my work-from-home time). That way, I return home, ready to get back to work on Monday. From March to May, when the cottage wasn’t open, I still got outside 6-7 times a day, even when the weather was rotten. It helps to have a giant dog that needs to be walked!
- Jenny: I try to give each day some sort of structure. I make a ‘To Do’ list every morning before anything else happens. And I hold myself to it. Having as many in-person meetings as possible is key. And if people can’t meet in person, then video conferencing is preferred over a phone conversation. To manage stress, I exercise every day. I carve out one hour (or more) and schedule it in as a ‘meeting.’ I never cancel on myself! Exercise is key for relieving stress, managing weight, regaining focus, good for sleeping, and good for memory. Plus, it calms me down. I don’t work day and night because I’ll suffer from burn-out. So, during a regular work day, I take breaks and I make sure I eat 3 healthy meals a day. I also enjoy vodka and wine and chips 🙂 But only on the weekends or on vacation! I have started to take CBD oil at nights too, which really helps with the sleeping bit.
- Rachael: I cut myself some slack. At the beginning, I was so excited about having extra time that I poured myself into other tasks. Sometimes I would work 16-hour days on things without blinking an eye and pride myself in being so productive. However, as time went on, I found my anxiety was heightening because I felt/feel like I and I was resorting to really bad old coping mechanisms just to get through the day. At the same time, I still need to maintain the air of composure and togetherness, given my leadership position. I was positive and upbeat around others but drained the second the call ended or I got off work. So, I decided to start taking it easier on myself by making myself take either 2 half days off a week or one full day off a week. These days are for doing whatever I want to do. Do I want to go to Midland, Barrie Collingwood or Wasaga for the 15th time this summer just to walk around the downtown or the trail system for hours, do I want to do some writing, or do I just want to sit and watch Suits or Outlander over-and-over again? Whatever tickles my fancy, so long as it makes me happy and forces me to take a break. I find taking that time helps me recentre and I’m a lot more compassionate when I’m not on the very edge of a burnout or anxiety attack (or in the middle of one). I also started to see a counsellor to help me with my demons and develop healthier coping mechanisms. It helps a lot!
Mega thanks to Kerry and Jenny for the assistance with these answers. It was great to see the perspective of how different women leaders at different stages of their lives and careers are adapting during this weird, weird, and sometimes scary, year!
Fellow leaders who are reading this, what are your answers? I might just do a 2.0 version of this in the next few weeks!