How To Lead Through Tough Times

Entrepreneurship, Leadership Coaching
04/02/20 - Nicole Wood
how to lead through tough times

Among many other aspects of leadership, no one teaches you what to do when the world falls apart. When you get promoted into a managerial role, there’s no handbook with a chapter on leading through pandemics… believe it or not. Maybe after this there will be.

If you’re lucky, you have coaches and mentors who can help you navigate these tricky waters. Though regardless of the support system you have in place, you can still feel isolated and alone in trying to determine how to best handle a situation full of difficult choices, uncertain futures and far from ideal outcomes.

I know I certainly felt and am still feeling this way as I navigate my first economic downturn and my first global crisis as a leader. I’ve trusted my intuition, the reinforcement I’ve received from my business partner and my training in leadership principles to guide me. And yet, I still ask myself 1,000,000 times a day, “Am I doing the right things? Am I making the right decisions?” There’s no way to know for sure; all I can do is make the best choices I can with the information I have in front of me.

making decisions on the fly

Every leader’s situation is different, and as I’ve already mentioned, there’s no playbook for what to do to address COVID-19 or most other crises. However, while the tactical and strategic business decisions are yours to make, there are some universal truths for how to lead other human beings through times of hardship.


It can be tempting to want to hole up until you know exactly what’s going to happen. The problem with that is people make assumptions when they don’t hear anything at all. Stay in front of it. Communicate what you know. Be transparent about what you don’t. ALV Career Specialist Shari Santoriello says, “Workers get nervous and scared when they feel out of the loop.”

You may be delaying your communications because you don’t want to present an incomplete picture or a half-baked plan, but communicating something is better than leaving it to your team’s imaginations. You can and should go back and communicate again as you know more. Tim Fagan, CRO at the leading media company, TEGNA, and one of my personal leadership mentors explains, “We’ve been hyper-focused on three things during this crisis: people, people and people. It’s impossible to over-communicate with our staff on all things virus related, and also business related in these extraordinary times.” 

Check in.

Leaders often remember to communicate downward, but they may forget to also ask questions and listen. It’s important that the dialogue goes both ways and that you get a sense for how this crisis is impacting your team. Bob Tweedie, Director of Leadership & Learning at Revantage Corporate Services, says, “What’s important right now is not just the projects we are working on, or the clients we are serving, but how our employees are feeling and coping in these uncertain times. Let’s have that conversation first to see how we can bring our best version of ourselves to help others. It’s the classic advice from airlines; take care of yourself first before helping others.”

Make sure you’re not just doing it as a check-the-box activity but that you really listen to what your team is saying and respond accordingly. “Listening is a skill that is so under-valued, and now more than ever is a time to truly listen. Listen for what people are saying and not saying. Don’t feel like you have to have all the answers. Sometimes people just want their leaders to listen to them to feel supported,” Bob adds.

Be compassionate.

It’s important to speak to the facts. This is what helps people stay calm and focus on what’s actually happening versus a dramatized version. However, you can skew too far in that direction and forget to address the emotions of the people around you.

Alyssa Burns, crisis communications expert and Principal of Alyssa Burns Communications says, “When people are anxious about the unknown, it’s important as a leader to show up with strength as well as compassion.  If you lead a team at the office, give your employees flexibility. If you’re a professor teaching students for the first time online, it’s OK to give everyone a chance to check in with each other, rather than jump right in. As a leader, it’s important to meet people where they are and be willing to show compassionate understanding as employees/students figure out how to navigate uncertainty.  Be flexible with deadlines. Focus on others first, rather than yourself. Be kind.”

leading your people through a tough time

Be honest.

Don’t try to sweep under the rug the fact that this will have an impact. There’s a fine line between being optimistic and being in denial. It’s worse to lie about the gravity of the situation now and then blind-side your team or clients later.

In a very calm way, explain that there will be an impact, but be clear about what exact measures are being implemented to address and/or minimize it.  Tim added, “We’re being very transparent about possibilities of business impacts, and specifically what that could mean for employees. For our clients, where possible we are staying off email and opting to call, Zoom/Skype, or FaceTime to talk to them about their business, their staff, and our relationship.  When we call them, we’re prepared to make pivots as needed — on the spot — to keep them on as a client, and assure them we’re here for them now, and certainly when we get to the other side of this crisis. We’re playing the short game on pricing, tactics, and operational decisions (because things are so dynamic), but playing the long game on relationships.”

But don’t panic.

Activity can create a false sense of control, and so your natural tendency may be to spring to action and change a bunch of things right away. Be alert and responsive to the situation and how business operations need to change. However, think things through and execute as you would with any other project or plan. Don’t go into panic mode. Your team needs to know that you are still thinking clearly and making wise and intentional decisions, even in the face of fear and uncertainty.

It’s okay to be afraid and to say so.

I sent emails to both my clients and my team (see samples at the end of this post) following the full onset of the COVID-19 crisis. In both of them I said some version of, “I’m scared.” It was the truth. I followed it up by mentioning what we’re doing to stay afloat, but I didn’t shy away from vulnerability. Naturally, my partner and our Chief Coaching Officer, Foram, has a similar perspective. She says, “It’s okay to say, “I’m scared too. We will get through this and here’s what we know and what we are doing about it.’’ If there were ever a time to present your humanity, it’s now. Vulnerability builds trust. Don’t feel like you need to be unfazed. It’s not realistic and thus not believable.

a list aligning priorities

Align on priorities.

It’s likely that the crisis situation has completely altered the course of business and thus the priorities of the organization. For us, this particular situation forced us to go from making bold, long-term, strategic investments to focusing on short-term cash flow. That change in priorities trickles down to everyone on the team. ALV Leadership Coach Jennifer Maynard says,The process of level setting is super important. Make sure everyone knows what they should be focused on, what you are working on and how you can all support each other. Meet frequently, check-in frequently, and be sure to ask for understanding. It’s not micromanaging; it ensures everyone feels supported and knows what’s going on.”

Put your money where your mouth is.

Compassion and empathy can go quickly out the window if you don’t back them up with your own actions. It’s easy to say, “I care about you and your struggles” from an ivory tower. Your team and clients need to know that you have skin in the game. If you’re asking them to work overtime, you better be there pitching in too. If their finances are going to be impacted, they’d like to know how you are making financial sacrifices as well. The very first thing Foram and I did when we realized that no new clients were signing up for coaching was cut our salaries to zero. We aren’t rich. This hurts… a lot. But we know our clients and team members are feeling pain too. We are in this right alongside them. Hopefully our pain helps ease the financial burden and thus cushions the blow for them.

Use this as an opportunity to innovate.

Sometimes the best ideas are generated in times of necessity. When your business plan is completely thrown out the window and your back is against the wall, you may be faced with the very real situation of: innovate or die. Use this time to intentionally develop new ideas which never would have surfaced during business as usual. Rocio Lane, founder of Cleancio says, “I personally decided to go back to the beginning, to my roots, and from there create a stronger foundation for my company. Fear is part of the change, and it’s there to wake us up, to remind us that we are alive and need to adapt to start again.” 

Talk about what you’re hopeful for.

There’s no sugar coating this. A lot of challenging decisions and situations will result from the pandemic we’re in. Don’t lose sight of the fact that there will be an end to this situation and this feeling. There will be light at the end of the tunnel. One day, we will all be telling stories about this time. Talk about what you’re hopeful for. Tell people what you’re excited about. Discuss what you’re grateful for. In the midst of sadness and fear, we can all use a little hope. Your team needs to know that you believe you will make it through this. 

Four women sitting around a table

It’s challenging to lead during the best of times. It’s exponentially more difficult when an unforeseen circumstance pushes your organization into survival mode. Stay calm. Come up with a plan. Communicate it clearly. And don’t forget to be a human being while doing it. You’re going to take a beating, but if you step up as a leader right now, your team can come out on the other side of this stronger and more united than ever.

In the interest of radical transparency, I’m sharing with you all a couple of the communications I’ve sent out to my clients and team during this time. I’m doing this in the hope that they inspire you to communicate with your communities with honesty, positivity and a bit of levity (as appropriate).

Email to full client base and community. Sent 3/17/20

I was not scheduled to write this week’s newsletter. Coach Sophie had written an insightful post on boosting your immune system via your gut health which is a hugely important topic right now and always (we will make sure this gets published on our blog).

I didn’t want to boot her out. Not just because I thought her note was important but because I didn’t want to be just another email in your inbox from a company talking about what they’re doing about COVID-19. I don’t know about you, but the frenzy of it all and the barrage of communications has made me feel worse, not better. And so I fought writing this. Until about 10pm last night.

But I was reminded of the fact that this newsletter can be counted on as a place of inspiration and heartfelt honesty every Tuesday morning. And so that’s what I hope to provide. Today’s newsletter isn’t about office closures or event cancellations. Those things are happening, but you probably assumed as much at this point.

What I feel is more important to tell you right now is that I’m scared.

It typically takes a lot to rattle me. I tend to be the one who believes that things work themselves out and that whatever random ache or pain I’m feeling will be gone in a couple of weeks and that whatever we think is bonkers that’s happening the world has probably already happened in history.

All those things may be true, but this experience is a first for me, as I’m sure it is for many of you. Not just reading about the public health implications and the lives that are being lost and the brutally difficult days health workers around the world are facing. You couple that with the pandemonium at the grocery stores, the school closures, the quarantining and the economic impact. It’s. A. Lot. Consider me rattled.

I’m scared for the world, and I’m scared for my little world. I’m scared that our business will be hit hard by this. That we will have to make cuts. That what we’ve worked so hard and sacrificed for will take a big dip instead of continuing to rise.

But yet, in the midst of the fear, I’m hopeful.

All we can do is make good choices and offer up some good in the world – the good that we are uniquely positioned to provide. We think we’re doing that by offering free career coaching to those whose jobs are being impacted by all of this.

I won’t pretend like I have all the answers. Or that I’m not going to make mistakes in how I personally handle this situation – I already have. All I can promise is that, as always, I will be honest, empathetic and open to your ideas.

These are scary and difficult times, but I believe in the good of the human spirit, the ability to create something beautiful from something chaotic and the power that unity brings. I know that our humanity is stronger than this virus. I know that we will get through this together. And I now know that working from home with your spouse is the true test of a marriage.

I’m sending love and hope from my little socially distanced corner of the world.

Stay safe, stay healthy, stay home.

Can’t wait to see you when the sun comes out.


lead in tough times

Email to ALV team. Sent 3/23/20

Written Saturday, March 21st, 7:37am (didn’t want to send until Monday so you can actually all try to enjoy this weekend indoors with family).

It’s eerie and quiet. I almost thought I heard birds chirping – a first for a Saturday morning waking up in Chicago.

Outside it’s gloomy and gray. I half expect to see zombies walking around as I peek through the blinds. Certainly feels like the world is that fucked up.

I check my inbox, and I only received 5 emails overnight. Now I really know this must be the apocalypse. I’m immediately thrust back into panic mode, wanting to take action, any action, to ensure ALV survives. I need to feel that I have some semblance of control over the situation and of my future… of all of our futures.

Then immediately – guilt. How lucky am I that all I’m stressing about is business? As of now, my family and friends are all healthy, something thousands around the globe can’t claim as they fight for their lives with limited resources and treatments.

But as much as I’d like to help, that’s not my battle to fight (besides staying home). My battle ground is here, on this computer screen, as we work to stay afloat and be able to provide a service that the world so desperately needs right now.

Foram and I are trying to be smart, think ahead and make good choices.

We’ve done an initial round of cost-cutting of some nice-to-have services and applications. We have a tiered strategy to continue to reduce our overhead should the economic impact of this continue to stall our revenues, as early indicators would suggest. We do not plan to pay ourselves again until further notice. 

Together, we are evaluating loan options from the City of Chicago and the SBA as a means of helping us weather the storm and continue to pay out salaries to the team. It is our priority to keep this team as intact as possible and find creative ways to ensure that you all can continue to provide for your families even as demand takes a dip.

I don’t know what the coming days and weeks will bring, but I do know that I need your ideas, optimism and fierceness now more than ever. I need you shouting from the rooftops that we are here, here to stay, and that our support is still a wise and worthwhile investment. If we pivot, take on new responsibilities, try out new turf, we will do it together. We have to be nimble, aligned and committed.

I won’t pretend like this crazy situation we’ve all found ourselves in isn’t going to impact our business. It will. But what I want us to do is stay calm and clear-headed. To be smart and strategic about what we pursue so we can keep the lights on while this all plays out. And to position ourselves thoughtfully to absolutely dominate the market when we come out on the other side.

If anyone can do it, it’s us.

Keep your spirits up, your heads down, and let’s get to work. It’s go time.


PS – If you do start to see zombies, ignore everything I said and execute your zombie plan immediately.

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