As the leader of your business, you’ve probably spent a great deal of time assembling the right people in the right positions. In return, your best team members invest a little bit of themselves in your brand and the success of the company. But, as we inch our way through this pandemic, after weeks of impossibly difficult decisions and shelter-in-place orders, one thing has become clear: the old playbook just became obsolete. CEO no longer stands for Chief Executive Officer; it’s evolving into Chief “Empathy” Officer.
Maurice Brewster, Founder and CEO of Mosaic Global Transportation in California, has been exploring the emotional and spiritual aspect of his leadership after having to furlough more than 100 employees.
“It’s our job as leaders to take care of and develop the staff—that’s the job,” he says. “Now, it’s just as important to keep spirits high and help them stay engaged. I know our employees feel like they are on an island. I want them to know that I feel their concerns and I’m with them spiritually, emotionally, and in theory.”
After more than 18 years in business, Brewster says he’s learning and adapting his leadership style, driven by five key points to help sustain a team mentality from a distance.
1. Communication – “Because our company leaders and employees are sheltering at home, unemployed and on some sort of unemployment benefits, constant and effective communication is key to keeping them engaged,” he says. “The virtual world offers many different means of communication, which can include phone calls, emails, text messages, instant messaging, and video conferencing. Consistent, prompt, and timely communication will help maintain synergy.”
Bottom line: There’s a reason why so many cite specific government officials as “effective leaders” during this crisis, usually those who convey confidence and consistently provide relevant information. Your employees—furloughed or not—aren’t necessarily expecting you to have all the answers, but they are hoping that you will listen to them, express some optimism, and keep them informed.
2. Trust – “Developing trust from afar is not as easy as walking down the hallway or going out to lunch to chat with employees. Trust is built at the individual level. Remembering the special needs of each person allows them to know we care and are still listening. It will be vitally important to have open and honest dialogue, allowing for lots of feedback. We MUST be willing to make ourselves accessible and available to our employees,” he says.
Bottom line: Meet employees on their level. It requires a bit of effort to contact your team outside of normal channels—usually the company email—but these aren’t normal times. Beyond a weekly email to the team, Brewster has had numerous one-on-one conversations with those who desire it. Many times, the conversations aren’t about the job, but about their family, their anxiety, or their personal situations. Listening builds trust. It also benefits the listener.
3. Clarity – “Our employees must have a clear understanding of what’s going on in our company as often as possible,” he says. For example, Brewster recently addressed a nervous employee who questioned whether it was safe to come to work at all, especially when the governor has implemented a stay-at-home order. Because Mosaic was deemed an essential service thanks to some government contracts, he detailed the new office and vehicle sanitization efforts they are taking (in compliance with the latest safety guidelines available to them) to ensure that those who are working remain as safe as possible, practices that will continue when others return.
Bottom line: When employees have questions, it’s important to be as forthcoming and transparent as possible. If you don’t have the answer, find out and follow up. Don’t make something up.
4. Support – “Our employees need to know that we realize they could feel lonely and like they are on an island during these times. For the most part, they may be fearful of losing their jobs. We need to reach out and ask how they are doing from an emotional point of view. We should share as much as we can and offer support if they need it.”
Bottom line: Employee assistance will likely come in waves, depending upon where your state is with the crisis. After any issues with unemployment, the next wave might be sustaining morale as the shutdown order moves into months. It’s not just their financial health, although important too, but the overall connection they have to your company and their position. It could be walking them through unemployment paperwork, or connecting them with online training courses to help them learn or sharpen skills. Brewster also hosts a weekly “garage” meeting with his senior managers—safely distanced from each other, of course—to make sure that they are sharing and addressing the needs of their employees down the line.
5. Authenticity – “This is about us being real and living in the moment with conviction and confidence. We need to let our employees know, that we will get through this together, while staying true to ourselves. As authentic leaders, we need to put our employees at ease during these tumultuous times,” he says.
Bottom line: “We’re all in this together” can sometimes ring hollow unless there is real action behind the words. Brewster takes his role as cheerleader seriously, although he’s found that he employees have inspired him as much, whether it’s volunteering their time or stepping up to help their friends, co-workers, or neighbors. People first, economics second.
More than ever, your team needs a new kind of leadership. If your goal is to return to business when the world starts moving again, what you do between now and then will determine who comes along for the ride again. Your usual role of big picture prognostication and conveying confidence to clients is still essential, but ensuring the mental hygiene of your team has become critical. Don’t miss your opportunity to be the leader your company needs.