You need to take an extended vacation. No, seriously, you do.

You need to take an extended vacation. No, seriously, you do.

Not only do you need a vacation, but it needs to be at least two weeks, and preferably longer. I have given many CEOs and business leaders this advice over the years, and I believe in it. 

Why a minimum of two weeks? Well, you need the first week to unwind and let work “go.” The second week, you truly relax, the tension of work and all its issues leave, but the brain continues to work in the background. After two weeks, I start to see the forest for the trees. The problems that were prominent in my life no longer are as relevant as I thought they were. Turning to my navigate sage power, I turn to my elder self to look back and see what is essential and what I should be focused on rather than that what has my attention.

Now I am unwinding

However, like the old saying, “Physician heal thyself,” I have failed to heed my advice until two weeks ago. I am now sitting in NE Spain, enjoying a quieter time and relaxing with good friends, food, and wine. To ensure my disconnection, I have adopted the following rules:

  • Limit email activity to 15 minutes a day.
  • Disconnect from Facebook (well, I effectively did that a couple of years ago) and all social media other than LinkedIn. 
  • Post to LinkedIn, but according to a plan, it takes about 5 minutes a day.
  • Avoid the news and television.
  • Reading lots but no business books.
  • At least 30 minutes of meditation a day.
  • Walk at least 5 miles a day.
  • Swim as often as possible in the ocean.

These rules are not complicated, but we are so conditioned to remain connected and tuned in that it takes effort to disconnect.

As I relax, I remember that I, like my clients, need to take an extended vacation to recover from the low-level stress of COVID over the last eighteen months. COVID has taken a toll on me, and more than I realized. While I have been active during COVID, I recognized that I have been reactive more than proactive. Now, not only do I want to change this behavior, but I am framing it around what I want to accomplish in Q4 2021 and 2022. 

The benefits for you

Sitting in quiet squares or overlooking the ocean, the focus has gotten more precise, the planning more effortless, and many things are just getting crossed off the list or deleted. Also, I am finding that I can better help my clients as my mind declutters.

I am focusing on achieving my long-term goals and not get distracted by what is in front of me. By refocusing, I realized much of what I was doing was not relevant to the long-term goals and thus a distraction.

Now, I can’t say that everything will be done and perfect at the end of this. But I will have more energy, be much better mentally to deal with what lies ahead, and cope with winter.

The benefit for your business.

Taking a minimum of two weeks off provides additional benefits too. You can see how your business operates without you. You will have answers to the following questions:

  • Does my leadership team function well in my absence? Are they aligned, and Is there conflict?
  • Do my team and company understand its mission, strategy, and purpose?
  • Does the organization continue to hit its KPIs for the quarter?
  • Do my clients need to deal with me, or can my team handle the clients’ needs?

I have asked many clients how their business would perform if they were unavailable for three to six months, and the answer is usually “Fine.” However, if you cannot go away for two weeks and disconnect, is that true?

If your business cannot operate without you, you don’t have a business; you have a job! To successfully leave your business, you have to make yourself redundant. Only by creating your own redundancy can you sell it, pass it on, or assume a non-executive position. I realize for many business owners, this isn’t easy, as their identity is tied up in their business, but to create a more significant legacy, ensure it operates without you.

So when did you last leave?

As I said earlier, with COVID, I hadn’t taken a vacation in 18+ months. Not only that, but with WFH, I had, like many others, increased the amount of time I was working which typically included at least one full day of every weekend. All of this took a toll.

So when did you last take a “proper” vacation for at least two weeks? Did you disconnect, or were you on calls and emails all the time, putting out fires and saving the company? The stress of the last eighteen months has taken a mental toll on all of us. If you don’t take a break and let yourself recover, you will be ill-prepared for what is ahead. While none of us know what is ahead, we can be sure that labor, supplies, and demand will be unpredictable. 

COVID and its effects are not done. I feel like we’re just finished the first half, but there is another half to go, and the opposing team that emerges from the locker room has a new strategy.

If it has been a while since you took an extended vacation, take one now, you will be amazed at how much you and your business will benefit.

 

Copyright (c) 2021, Marc A. Borrelli

 

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What has COVID done to Company Culture?

What has COVID done to Company Culture?

The effect of COVID on company culture is an issue for all business leaders to consider seriously. I see the following areas for examination:

  • Have you lived your culture during COVID?
  • How are you maintaining your culture and connections in a WFH world?
  • How are you instilling your culture into new hires in a WFH environment?

Have you lived your culture during COVID?

COVID has forced many companies to pivot, cut costs, and adjust strategy. However, did the leader and management team live up to the company’s culture while executing these changes? As everyone’s cultural values are different behaviors to consider.

  • Did you check in with your employees regularly to see how they were coping?
  • Did you communicate effectively and often with your employees, so they knew what was happening?
  • When making changes, did you explain why and where the company’s new direction was aimed?
  • When terminating people, did you do it in person or by email?

The above is just a sample of behaviors that maybe didn’t live up to the company’s values. If you didn’t, then you need to work hard to fix it. As with any crisis like this, there are a few key steps:

  1. Get in front of it. It has happened, so it is hard to get in front of it. However, do an audit of behaviors and values during COVID. Identify the lapses and then plan accordingly. Don’t wait for the Zoom cooler talk to destroy any belief in the companies values.
  2. Admit It. Let your employees know you recognize that you didn’t live up to your values in the identified situations.
  3. Own It. Say it was the leadership’s fault. The buck stops with you, and that is why you get paid the big bucks! Deflecting the blame will only weaken a fragile state and create further disbelief in any values you may have.
  4. Correct it. Layout a plan to correct the behaviors from happening again and what steps the organization will take to reinforce its values in the future. This plan needs to have SMART metrics tied to it so that employees can see the progress being made and it not just more “CEO Bingo.”

Maintaining your culture and connections in a WFH world?

For many, the move to WFH has gone well overall. Productivity is generally up, and work is getting done. Many CEOs and business leaders are considering to what degree they can allow WFH going forward, permanently, one to five days a week, etc. However, one of the reasons that WFH has gone so well is that before COVID, we had strong relationships with our coworkers. We knew them, had worked with them, and most importantly, had built some degree of trust. But the longer we don’t connect with them, the weaker these bonds grow. While we are connecting with them over Zoom, Teams, Slack, or email, that is not the same as in person. If we lose the culture or connections, it weakens the ability of the company to respond to other threats, and people will leave for companies where they see better relationships.

The more time we are remote, the bonds between us grow weaker. Long distant relationships have a 58% chance of success, basically a coin toss. There are stronger connections in a romantic relationship than a work one, so the chances of a “long-distance” work relationship working are less than 50%. So leaders need to figure out how to maintain the connections and culture among employees as they go forward with a WFH policy. If employees are only going to be in the office rarely, the company needs to increase how it builds connections between employees and promotes its culture.

Regular gatherings of employees at events where they can strengthen their relationships will be essential. Getting them to share personal information to build stronger bonds will also be a crucial part of the effort. Doing this will differ among companies, but figure it out and ensure that the events have a clear purpose that everyone understands and get feedback on to know if you are achieving your goals.

Instilling your culture into new hires

New hires are posing the most difficult challenges for companies. Historically we know that 70+% of people regret making the job change on the first day. Now we are in a WFH environment where there are fewer personal connections. If we cannot build those connections and get them to buy into the culture, they will shortly leave, which is expensive for the organization and poses new problems when people are hard to find.

The leader and leadership team need to work with their HR departments to figure out how to effectively onboard new hires and simultaneously install the firm’s culture and develop personal connections among the teams. Achieving this won’t be easy, but the effort will pay huge dividends.

Why Does This Matter?

It doesn’t take much to destroy the employees’ belief in the company’s values and attribute them to just words on a wall. If this is where you are, the road back to get alignment around values will be hard. Without core values, nothing connects the employees to a common bond and purpose, so they are more likely to leave.

If your employees are not connected, they are less likely to have a good friend at work. Without a good friend in an environment where they spend a third of their time, there is less keeping them attached. With demand for employees increasing, and thus wages, they will be tempted to move if there is no downside to leaving the tribe.

Those organizations that live their culture and whose employees have strong bonds of trust will outperform those that don’t. The work to achieve this is not always easy but very beneficial.

 

Copyright (c) 2021, Marc Borrell

 

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We All Need Clarity

We All Need Clarity

In discussions with many clients this week, the common theme that I heard was exhaustion and depression. As I have said before, thanks to COVID, we are all tired. However, our personal situations amplify the stress that we all suffer from because of COVID. In some cases, it may be a spouse losing a job, homeschooling multiple children while trying to do your work, or worries about elderly parents.

Regardless, the stress is coming at us from all sides. I recommended that my clients spend time talking to their direct reports, employees, clients, and suppliers and asking how they are doing. Not just asking, but actively listening to hear what is going on in their lives. Things like this make a difference.

Besides, a repetitive theme is “Clarity,” e.g., what is your strategy in a single sentence. However, regardless of our intentions, the corporate playbooks come out periodically, messing everything up. I have recently heard companies ignoring such advice and reverting to keeping all information secret and locked up.

Now I am not talking about profits or trade secrets, but rather things like strategy, brand promise, employee development, and bonus calculations. This lack of clarity causes confusion and more stress. However, it is also giving rise to another issue, the loss of “A” employees.

My recent blog on the coming talent crunch pointed out a shortage of “A” players. As see from my clients and others, as we are starting to emerge from COVID, demand is increasing. Many are scrambling to fill positions to meet that demand. As a result, for “A” players, the call is out that you are needed, and the market will reward you!

If your organization is focused on obscurity over clarity, whether intentionally or not, your “A” players are vulnerable. It reminds me of my many years in M&A when a selling owner or CEO would concoct stories to cover the buyers’ due diligence. In every case, the “A” players would realize what was going on. In the best cases, they would be in the CEO’s office that same day asking, “Are we being sold?” However, in the worst cases, they would start the discussions around the proverbial water cooler. Nature abhors a vacuum, and it never ceases to amaze me the stories that people can come up with when they don’t know what is happening. Regardless, the net effect of uncertainty with the future leads all your “A” players to get their resumes out and start looking. Only the “C” players stay because they have no options.

Regardless of how your business is doing right now, you need your “A” players to survive and thrive. If you are left with your “C” players, you might as well start looking for a buyer or considering some other form of exit.

So, consider your “A” players. They need to know the strategy, brand promise, and core purpose of the organization, their career development and options, and their expected compensation and how it is calculated. Why?

Strategy

If they don’t know the strategy, they cannot execute it. As David Marquet put it in, Turn the Ship Around, “Push the decision making to where the information is.” The information is at the front lines, not in the board room. The more your employees know about the strategy and the clearer it is, they can make the correct decisions as market conditions change. And market conditions are changing rapidly at the moment.

Core Values and Brand Promise

COVID has brought home how precarious life is. So, people during this time of lockdowns and death are questioning the meaning in their lives. They are now looking at the organizations that employ them and asking if their values align. A recent Harvard Business Review article put it that Core Values are no longer a nice thing to have but a core part of the strategy. So, if you cannot articulate your core values and brand promise clearly to your employees, they will determine it on their own, and it may be very different from what you proclaim. Self-determined values are based on the behaviors they see rather than what is claimed. In that case, you may lose those employees who would support the values and brand promise you aspire to rather than what you live.

Career Development

As mentioned above, COVID has brought home fragility. Many are questioning if they want to do “X” for the rest of the career. Thus, a vital part of any employee review at this time is understanding what they seek for their future. It may no longer be promotion and leadership, but more time with family or new experiences in other divisions or markets. Understanding your employees’ desires and working with them to realize their desires while meeting the organization’s needs is more likely to retain them than ignoring them.

Their compensation and its calculation

Your “A” employees are getting calls from headhunters and recruiters because there is a talent crunch. If not, they soon will be. While the vast majority of employees don’t leave because of compensation, as a result of COVID, many bonuses or pay raises were deferred, changed, or ignored. Many organizations face cash flow issues and are in no position to provide employee bonuses or raises but explaining that is key. Others thrived during COVID, and many of their employees have stepped up well above expectations.

In some cases, those employees don’t understand how their financial rewards correlate to their efforts and believe they were short-changed. Those employees are more likely to take a headhunters’ call. Therefore, explaining the situation, explaining the policies, pay, and bonuses are calculations will help dramatically.

With greater clarity, you will more likely realize your strategy and keep your “A” players, enabling you to thrive. Obfuscation will only lead to tears.

 

Copyright (c) 2021, Marc A. Borrelli

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To Vaccinate or Not to Vaccinate, that is the Question

To Vaccinate or Not to Vaccinate, that is the Question

In my Vistage meetings this week, we had an interesting discussion on whether or not my members would make their employees get a COVID vaccine. While there was a brief discussion on whether or not you could legally make your employees get vaccinated, we primarily discussed what each person would do. (Apparently, you can with two exceptions, medical conditions make it dangerous and religious objections. For more see, Can I Be Required To Get Vaccinated Against Covid-19?). The results were diverse and ranged from:

  • “No!” “I would take it myself but would not force my employees to do so because they may leave.”
  • “I have many conspiracy theorists among a section of my workforce, and they will object.”
  • “No, I don’t want to be sued.”
  • “If they want to travel, they have to.”
  • “If they want to work in the office, they have to as we have health comprised people in the office.”

However, what stood out in the discussion was that none of the CEOs framed their response within their Core Values. Again, as Jim Collins says, Core Values are so important that we would be willing to lose profit rather than breach them. Thus, if our Core Values are that important, indeed, they should frame our response to the vaccination question. If we don’t, then once more, our Core Values are only words on a wall or a pad but have no impact on the organization and behavior in it. In that case, they are worthless, and your employees lose trust in your words and statements because they are just that – words, and not beliefs.

Regardless of whether your Core Values are just words on a wall or actively known by every employee, a complex issue like vaccination stresses them and how they are understood within the organization. Those of you who read my blogs know that I have said that Core Values provide employees a framework for making decisions within an organization. However, if your Core Value is “Respect,” what does that mean, especially in the COVID vaccine world? Does it mean:

  • Out of RESPECT for our fellow workers, we will all vaccinate.
  • Out of RESPECT for you, your opinion, and your decision making, we will allow you to do what you think is best.
  • Out of RESPECT for you, we will enable you to determine what you put in your body.
  • Out of RESPECT for our clients, we will vaccinate those that are client-facing.
  • Out of RESPECT for our employees’ health and decision making, we will allow those that don’t want to be vaccinated to work from home so they can’t infect anyone in the office.
  • Out of RESPECT for our fellow citizens, we will all vaccinate to get to herd immunity quicker.
  • Out of RESPECT for your health-compromised family, we will allow you to work from home until it is safe to return to the office, whether that be one month or five years.

As you can see, a single word like RESPECT can have many different interpretations, and this is where things get complicated. For example, if you determine that your version of RESPECT is the second one, “Out of RESPECT for you, your opinion, and your decision making, we will allow you to do what you think is best.” You apply that to COVID, then surely it applies to all decisions they make within the organization. While we all like to push decision-making down, the leadership team has to be able to override decisions and impose its desires in certain instances. So what are those situations, and where is the line?

Core Values are more than just words or statements. They have meaning, and the organization can only succeed if the intention is understood equally by everyone in the organization. To see how you are doing, ask your employees if they know what the organization’s Core Values are, and how they should be understood. Your employees may often find it hard to define them, so offer them situations and ask, “what should someone in the organization do?”

Here you might find a great deal of diversity of opinion. To overcome this and teach your Core Values, I think the best way is to rely on corporate folklore. Your company needs stories of the founder, the CEOs, the great people in its history, and how they behaved in situations that reflect the company’s Core Values. Having corporate folklore and ensuring that employees learn the stories and their meaning as part of the onboarding process will create greater belief in, and understanding of, your Core Values. Furthermore, make sure to repeat the folklore stories whenever a situation arises where they are relevant. Repeating them drives home learning until everyone knows your Core Values and how they should be interpreted.

Returning to the COVID vaccinations decision. Well, regardless of your Core Values, the decision of whether or not to require employees to be vaccinated will be hard. However, I would recommend that, first of all, you be a leader in your decision and state it with leadership in mind. If you want them vaccinated, be at the front of the line. Second, figure out how your decision fits with your Core Values and explain that way. Of course, it has to work; if it is a stretch or plain contradictory, then maybe you need to re-examine your Core Values.

Good luck, and may you stay safe in the meantime.

 

Copyright (c) 2020, Marc A. Borrelli

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I’m So Tired

I’m So Tired

As I talk to my CEO clients and others across the work spectrum, the common refrain that I hear is, “I am so tired.” Somehow, I feel I have Lili von Shtupp’s lyrics stuck in my head on repeat.

“I’m so tired
Goddammit, I’m exhausted
Tired, tired of playing the game
Ain’t it a crying shame
I’m so tired.”

So why is everyone tired? I put it down to three things: Zoom Fatigue, Long Hours, and our environment.

 

Zoom Fatigue

Zoom Fatigue is real! Before COVID hit, roughly two-thirds of all social interactions were face-to-face. No more. Most of us still talk in person with the people we live with and maybe with a friend or two who we have allowed into our pods. There may be the occasional chat with the cashier at the grocery store, restaurant, or the UPS delivery person. However, almost all other interactions, work conversation, book clubs, dinner parties, joking around at the gym have either disappeared or moved online. Thus, nearly all of us are yearning for more social connections.

With the onset of COVID, Zoom, Teams, Skype, other video calling systems calls took off. Not only that, but telephone calls, which had been declining in favor of text, were like Mark Twain: the report of their death was an exaggeration.

  • AT&T reported that from mid-March to May 1, wireless voice calls peaked at 44% above typical levels, and Wi-Fi calling more than doubled.
  • In March, Verizon was reporting an average of 800 million wireless calls each weekday. That’s nearly double the number of calls made on Mother’s Day, typically the busiest call day of the year.
  • According to an RBC analyst, Zoom average 148.4 million monthly active users in Q2 2020, up 4,700% year over year.

So while we are communicating through new and old channels, it is different. According to  Jeffrey Hall, a professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, “Compared to face to face, texting and using social media, energy use during a Zoom call is higher. It was more intense than these other [modes].” Besides, Hall’s research shows that video calls also seemed to heighten not lessen loneliness. “People said, after the fact, that they felt lonely, less connected [on video chat].”

Hall argues Zoom fatigue is real. “Zoom is exhausting and lonely because you have to be so much more attentive and so much more aware of what’s going on than you do on phone calls.” We are also asking everyone on the call to have their cameras on see how people are doing, but then you are also watching yourself speak. Research shows that when we’re on video, we tend to spend the most time gazing at our own faces. So, hide from view. Also, when on video, we also focus on other’s backgrounds as well. We can see their furniture, plants, and artwork. We start straining to see what books they have on their shelves. Processing all these stimuli takes a lot of very energy, increasing mental fatigue. Also, bandwidth issues causing blips, delays, and cut off sentences create confusion.

Not only that, but video calls make it easier than ever to lose focus. We all believe we absolutely can listen intently, check our email, text a friend, and post a smiley face on Slack within the same thirty seconds. Except, of course, we don’t end up doing much listening at all when we’re distracted. Not only that, but it quickly becomes obvious to the others that you are not focused and mentally checked out, which is a distraction to the entire group.

Finally, there are issues of co-workers being invited into your private living spaces and all the issues that bring with it. People are questioning coworkers’ tastes in art and home décor and being exposed to more of their online chat participants than expected. The latest to fall foul of that was New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin, but there are cases of mothers being caught nude on their children’s school zoom calls, and much worse.

According to Hall, phone calls, by comparison, are less demanding. “You can be in your own space. You can take a walk, make dinner.” 

How to combat Zoom fatigue

I believe there are a few steps we can take to reduce Zoom fatigue, and they are:

  • Basic teamwork blocking and tackling. Start meetings asking about the team and how they are doing personally. Recognize contributions. At this time, we are all suffering, and recognition helps lift our spirits. Celebrate victories. There aren’t many, and we need to celebrate more.
  • Have an agenda. No Zoom call should occur without a clear agenda on what is to be covered in the call. Also, whoever called the meeting has to ensure that everyone sticks to the agenda and needs to quieten those that continue talking. I have noticed that it is hard to get a word in on a Zoom call if others keep talking, so the meeting head needs to use the mute button generously at times.
  • Fewer meetings. Since Zoom meetings are exhausting, we need to limit them. Since we are all craving connection, it has become like cc emails. We include everyone, but not everyone needs to be on all calls. If there is an agenda, those that don’t need to attend can say so. Remember Jeff Bezos’s 2-pizza rule. No more than 6 to 8 people. The more people, the more unproductive the meeting becomes.
  • Shorten meetings. When meetings are too long, attendees tend to switch to offline mode and focus on emails or messages. Meetings have reverted to a 1-hour standard, but why? Push your team to do better and make it a company priority to set a new meeting standard of 30 minutes maximum. Make it short and sweet, and keep the focus on the issues at hand.
  • Avoid multitasking. Researchers have found that people who multitask can’t remember things and their more singularly focused peers. So, during your next video chat, close any tabs or programs that might distract you (e.g., your inbox or Slack), put your phone away, and stay present.
  • Build-in breaks. Take mini-breaks from video during longer calls by minimizing the window or just looking away from your computer completely for a few seconds every so often. Your colleagues probably understand more than you think — it is possible to listen without staring at the screen for a full thirty minutes. This is a time just to let your eyes rest for a moment. If you are stuck in a day of back to back Zoom meetings, building a 10-minute buffer between calls to stretch and walk.
  • Reduce onscreen stimuli. Encourage people to use virtual backgrounds, preferably ones that don’t move, or agree as a group to have everyone who is not talking turn off their video.

Also, Hall suggests three more rules:

  1. Tighten the circle of people you communicate with. In technology, as in life, we have layers of intimacy. According to Hall, “It’s not the case that more is better. We can only maintain so many relationships at a time.
  2. Build communication into your routines. “Have something on the calendar that you repeatedly do, make it a part of what’s on your daily or weekly or monthly to-do list,” Hall says. I have a monthly Zoom call with some high school friends, which has been a great way to reconnect and chat through all we are going through.
  3. Strengthen the signal. Use communication methods that make you feel the most connected and think about the content of your interactions. As Hall says, “We’re still human beings who need each other. We’re going to use technology to recreate the things that we need.”

Long hours

With COVID, our workspace has invaded our homes. The separation of relaxation and work is lost as so we work longer. Also, many of us are dealing with our children’s challenges at home learning virtually, which is a huge distraction and prevents many from doing their jobs. As a result, work gets moved to when the children are done or asleep, lengthening the workday. Effectively we are all working continual overtime.

However, research shows employees who work overtime hours experience numerous mental, physical, and social effects. Significant effects include stress, lack of free time, poor work-life balance, and health risks. Besides, employee performance levels fall, and there is an increase in tiredness, fatigue, and lack of attentiveness. Here is a list of things you and your employees can do to reduce stress.

From what I see and hear, everyone is experiencing this. The initial increase in productivity with the onset of COVID has gone, and overall productivity has fallen. There is overall euphoria for those whose children have returned to school as they are regaining time to work and then be engaged with their children at the end of the day.

How to combat long hours

Combatting long hours is more difficult than Zoom fatigue. But realistically, COVID will affect us for another year, so you need to adjust your planning to that reality. During the winter months, it will get worse as outside activities become more limited. However, here are some suggestions.

  • Be disciplined with your calendar. Don’t allow it to fill up with meetings. If you are in the C-Suite, ensure that your people limit their meetings, both in time and number. As mentioned above, move meetings to 30 minutes and limit the number of back to back meetings.
  • Build-in breaks. Every two hours, take a 30-minute break. Walk around the neighborhood, meditate, or do yoga. The break in the routine will be mentally stimulating.
  • Take time off. Encourage people in your organization to take time off. From the data out there, the amount of unused PTO is at record levels. However, estimates are that unused vacations cost the U.S. $224 billion a year. Allow for a day off for the organization. Be clear about your annual leave and other paid time off guidance, especially if they have changed during COVID. Not only that, but encourage people to go something different other than sit at home. Currently, I am sitting in San Francisco with some friends. The change in scenery and environment is incredibly refreshing and mentally revitalizing. Read more at Managers, Encourage Your Team to Take Time Off.
  • Find a hobby. We are trapped in our homes. So we need to find something outside of work that is mentally refreshing and brings us happiness and excitement. It is a great time to find a new hobby, read some of the classics, or finish those DIY projects that have been on our to-do list forever. I found archery that way as I would go into a zone for the entire time, and it provided a break. A CEO I know has joined her husband doing woodwork, and it is something they both look forward to at the end of the day.

 

Our Environment

We are heading into the holiday season, and this year it is going to be very different. For those with college children, they will be home much longer. There will be no parties and few opportunities to socialize. There will be little shopping at malls for gifts, but UPS, FedEx, and Amazon trucks will fill the road. Those with extended families are likely to travel to see them. After nine months of COVID, this is what we have to look forward to. Not only that, but we can expect COVID to be disrupting our lives for another nine to twelve months. All of which is mentally draining.

How to deal with this. The best way, in my opinion, is the Stockdale Paradox. James Stockdale was held captive during the Vietnam War as a prisoner of war for over seven years. Stockdale was repeatedly tortured during his captivity and had no reason to believe he’d make it out alive. To stay alive in this hell reality, Stockdale embraced both the harshness of his situation with a balance of healthy optimism. The paradox, as he put it, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” In its simplest form, the paradox is the idea of hoping for the best but acknowledging and preparing for the worst.

Of course, as a follower of the ancient Greek Stoic philosophers, Stockdale may have had an advantage, but we can all learn from the paradox. The paradox holds a great lesson for how to achieve success and overcome difficult obstacles. It also challenges unbridled optimists and those positivity peddlers whose advice we are encouraged to follow. In discussion with Jim Collins for his book Good to Great, Stockdale spoke about how the optimists fared in the prison camp. The dialogue goes:

JC: “Who didn’t make it out?”

JS: “Oh, that’s easy, the optimists.”

JC: “The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused, given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier.

JS: “The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. … This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Your organization—or unconscious mind—may be hoping on some other event or date after which some version of “rescue” will come: a vaccine, a cure, a reliable and cheap test, the acquisition of herd immunity.

However, to review the brutal facts, none of these developments are likely in the foreseeable short term. There is a possibility that there may never be a fully effective vaccine or cure; this virus may be something that we live with and manage for years to come. If that is the case, we will have to change elements of our social interaction in unprecedented ways that may well lead to irrevocable social changes.

Besides, the effects of the virus today ensure there will be no normal to return to, as this incomplete list indicates:

What to do?

With regard to business leadership and management, this duality helps to guard against the onslaught of disappointments that COVID delivers in the business world. Optimism drives innovation; however, we need to maintain realism and not over-optimistically chase something that can’t happen.

The COVID crisis is affecting your employees in very different ways depending on where they live, what they do, their family situation, and their understanding of and expectations about the pandemic, among other factors. As a result, your team members are probably in different phases of reaction to the crisis. Keep this in mind and here are some additional suggestions.

  • Start meetings by having each person introduce themselves by their name, job title, mission, and their immediate tasks. Doing so brings people back to themselves and helping them begin to focus again on their roles, relationships, and tasks which is of utmost importance. The important role of a leader during a crisis is to consistently articulate the organization’s purpose and connect each day’s tasks to it. Without this, people drift. While the need for planning is crystal clear in acute, short-term crises. Planning in a long-term situation where the threat to survival rolls on monotonously day after day is not always so clear. This is because planning automatically implies a future, and this future is frequently in doubt. All leaders, not only those in the C-suite, must understand the organization’s purpose, values, and how those connect to each day’s work. Managers have at least as much impact on team morale and performance as the overall organization itself does. In crises, people tend to rely on the authority figures they already know and trust even more than usual. And remote work means that a direct manager may be an employee’s only real point of contact with the organization.
  • Regularly ask at meetings: “What is something that doesn’t fit in, that doesn’t make sense?” As we face a rapidly changing set of circumstances knowing what data points matter is difficult. Ensure there is time to discuss facts that don’t seem to fit the narrative. During a crisis, we automatically discount our experience and lean towards denial. To fight these cognitive biases, we must be made aware of them. As you and your team move through this time, you will sometimes lose focus, make mistakes, and have errors in judgment. The key is to normalize admitting these mistakes and analyzing them. Make discussing weak spots, harm reduction, and damage control part of the weekly meetings. This will lead to better decision making going forward.
  • Enable ways for your team to surface both their deep faith and their real fears. Engaging in “As if” exercises, roleplay, and assigned mental exercises can help teams articulate thoughts and feelings that may be too threatening to acknowledge otherwise. “Having a value system, a sense of identity, a purpose for one’s existence increases the odds of survival and resiliency.” When deciding on a course of action, have team members engage in mental contrasting. Mental contrasting requires a person or team to (i) visualizes a goal and its rewards, and (ii) visualizes what obstacles, including their own behavior, stand between them and their goal. It is necessary to envision both the positive and the negative. According to W. Von Bergen and Martin S. Bressler, when people focus on only positive thoughts about the future, “they literally trick their minds into thinking they have already succeeded and, so, do not need actual efforts to attain something perceived as already acquired. However, completely disregarding positive thinking is also not effective. With purely negative thoughts, people convince themselves that they have already lost the goal, so, again, there is no need to make the efforts necessary to achieve it.”
  • Have faith. Ask yourself: What were your highest values in January 2020? For you as an individual or for your company? Those values still matter, and those ideals did not change because of COVID. So, ask:
    • What are your brutal facts? What is your deepest faith?
    • What would your version of the Stockdale Paradox be?
    • What does your organization exist for?
    • What is your organizational purpose? How engaging is it?

I hope some of this helps. Hang in there and have faith. The road may be rough, but as John Lennon said, “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

Copyright (c) Marc A. Borrelli, 2020

Your organization—or unconscious mind—may be hoping on some other event or date after which some version of “rescue” will come: a vaccine, a cure, a reliable and cheap test, the acquisition of herd immunity.

However, to review the brutal facts, none of these developments are likely in the foreseeable short term. There is a possibility that there may never be a fully effective vaccine or cure; this virus may be something that we live with and manage for years to come. If that is the case, we will have to change elements of our social interaction in unprecedented ways that may well lead to irrevocable social changes.

Besides, the effects of the virus today ensure there will be no normal to return to, as this incomplete list indicates:

What to do?

With regard to business leadership and management, this duality helps to guard against the onslaught of disappointments that COVID delivers in the business world. Optimism drives innovation; however, we need to maintain realism and not over-optimistically chase something that can’t happen.

The COVID crisis is affecting your employees in very different ways depending on where they live, what they do, their family situation, and their understanding of and expectations about the pandemic, among other factors. As a result, your team members are probably in different phases of reaction to the crisis. Keep this in mind and here are some additional suggestions.

  • Start meetings by having each person introduce themselves by their name, job title, mission, and their immediate tasks. Doing so brings people back to themselves and helping them begin to focus again on their roles, relationships, and tasks which is of utmost importance. The important role of a leader during a crisis is to consistently articulate the organization’s purpose and connect each day’s tasks to it. Without this, people drift. While the need for planning is crystal clear in acute, short-term crises. Planning in a long-term situation where the threat to survival rolls on monotonously day after day is not always so clear. This is because planning automatically implies a future, and this future is frequently in doubt. All leaders, not only those in the C-suite, must understand the organization’s purpose, values, and how those connect to each day’s work. Managers have at least as much impact on team morale and performance as the overall organization itself does. In crises, people tend to rely on the authority figures they already know and trust even more than usual. And remote work means that a direct manager may be an employee’s only real point of contact with the organization.
  • Regularly ask at meetings: “What is something that doesn’t fit in, that doesn’t make sense?” As we face a rapidly changing set of circumstances knowing what data points matter is difficult. Ensure there is time to discuss facts that don’t seem to fit the narrative. During a crisis, we automatically discount our experience and lean towards denial. To fight these cognitive biases, we must be made aware of them. As you and your team move through this time, you will sometimes lose focus, make mistakes, and have errors in judgment. The key is to normalize admitting these mistakes and analyzing them. Make discussing weak spots, harm reduction, and damage control part of the weekly meetings. This will lead to better decision making going forward.
  • Enable ways for your team to surface both their deep faith and their real fears. Engaging in “As if” exercises, roleplay, and assigned mental exercises can help teams articulate thoughts and feelings that may be too threatening to acknowledge otherwise. “Having a value system, a sense of identity, a purpose for one’s existence increases the odds of survival and resiliency.” When deciding on a course of action, have team members engage in mental contrasting. Mental contrasting requires a person or team to (i) visualizes a goal and its rewards, and (ii) visualizes what obstacles, including their own behavior, stand between them and their goal. It is necessary to envision both the positive and the negative. According to W. Von Bergen and Martin S. Bressler, when people focus on only positive thoughts about the future, “they literally trick their minds into thinking they have already succeeded and, so, do not need actual efforts to attain something perceived as already acquired. However, completely disregarding positive thinking is also not effective. With purely negative thoughts, people convince themselves that they have already lost the goal, so, again, there is no need to make the efforts necessary to achieve it.”
  • Have faith. Ask yourself: What were your highest values in January 2020? For you as an individual or for your company? Those values still matter, and those ideals did not change because of COVID. So, ask:
    • What are your brutal facts? What is your deepest faith?
    • What would your version of the Stockdale Paradox be?
    • What does your organization exist for?
    • What is your organizational purpose? How engaging is it?

I hope some of this helps. Hang in there and have faith. The road may be rough, but as John Lennon said, “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

Copyright (c) Marc A. Borrelli, 2020

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