During a recent speaking engagement, I was asked several questions about Central Michigan University’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Someone asked, “What has been the hardest part for you about leading during this crisis, and what advice would you give to someone new to leadership right now?”
What I’ve learned is that there is no handbook for navigating a crisis like COVID, and I often find myself asking similar questions of my friends and colleagues in higher education and in other industries.
The hardest thing for me has been finding ways to remain personally connected as we remain physically distant for health and safety reasons. As a classic extrovert, I am energized by meeting new people and engaging with students, faculty and staff every day. I like handshakes and high-fives, and I prefer face-to-face meetings. I learn a great deal from non-verbal cues like body language and tone of voice, and impromptu conversations before and after meetings give me time to truly get to know people. Those spontaneous conversations often lead to some of the most creative and exciting new ideas.
As you can probably imagine, the pandemic has made many of these things difficult, if not impossible. To keep moving forward, I’ve made some significant changes to how I hold meetings and engage with others. There also are some routine things I must do more often and more strategically. Each day, I try to remind myself of the following things — I hope they are insightful and helpful to others as well:
Begin with our core values
Even during the best of times, modeling CMU’s core values is an important part of leadership. There is never a bad time to infuse your work with integrity, respect, compassion, inclusiveness, social responsibility, excellence and innovation. During moments of crisis, these values should be at the foundation of every decision and action.
Focus on compassion above all else. The people on your team are likely struggling, even if those struggles are invisible. Most of us are balancing obligations at work with concerns about friends and family members, and everything is compounded by the pandemic, unease about the elections and frustrations from the ongoing national conversation about racial justice and equality. Everyone is dealing with new emotional and mental stressors, so manage your expectations of them accordingly and exercise kindness daily.
Make decisive choices, yet be willing to adapt
In a crisis, you will have to make choices more quickly than you otherwise would, guided only by your priorities, core values and the best information available at the time. As new information becomes available, you will need to adapt to it — even if it means reversing an earlier decision.
In this pandemic, for example, guidance from the nation’s top health organizations has changed several times — sometimes in the same week. Even the nation’s foremost experts have disagreed about best practices. To make firm decisions, we have relied upon multiple reputable sources, the expertise of CMU leaders and the input of community leaders. We made choices, reviewed them and revised them as we learned more.
Changing course may not always be a popular move, but if it keeps your team in line with its values and top priorities, it is the right move.
Know that perfection isn’t possible
Crises are impossible situations — they come up quickly, overwhelm every resource and rarely come with an instruction manual. While you can make advance plans to mitigate crises, each will be unique and will involve some factors you simply cannot plan for ahead of time. Therefore, everyone — including you — will make mistakes. Always encourage others to strive for excellence, yet let them know you understand perfection isn’t possible. Sometimes “good enough” is sufficient.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
I’ve seen jokes on social media about the daily reminders for our health screening app, and I know weekly email updates may sometimes seem like overcommunication. If my email inbox is any indication, we’re all receiving far more messages than ever before, so why send more?
I have learned that in a pandemic, it is nearly impossible to communicate too often.
Sometimes you will need to communicate urgent or new information, and sometimes you just need to check in to give others reassurance and support. Sometimes people overlook emails, miss critical information in a message, or become overwhelmed and forget what they have read previously. Communicate what you can, when you can, and offer gentle nudges and reminders when needed. It is far better to be accused of oversharing than under-communicating, and a well-informed community is both safer and more efficient.
It is important to understand you may not have time to disseminate information in the manner or timeline you would prefer. Higher education is known for slow decision-making. We usually prefer to take the time to engage many stakeholders in a deliberate and measured discussion; in a crisis, this may not be an option. Whenever possible, involve many voices and perspectives in the decision-making process. When it is not possible, explain why, and be as transparent as possible in explaining how the decision was reached.
And when people reach out to ask questions or express concern, take time with your response. Thoughtfully consider both the message and the messenger. Explore why the message has been sent, and craft your response with care. Passionate disagreement is often an expression of caring for the mission and the team, and it is better to have a dozen emails expressing frustration than the empty silence of apathy.
Make it personal
When operations go virtual, it can be difficult for people to feel seen and heard. Guidance for muting microphones may inhibit people from speaking up, and crowded Webex calls can make it hard to see everyone in the room. It is possible to feel lonely and isolated, even when surrounded virtually by many teammates.
To address that issue, make time for informal check-ins before getting down to the business of the meeting. Ask your colleagues how they are doing. Share stories, maybe even tell a few jokes. If someone isn’t actively participating in the discussion, seek ways to invite their opinions and insight. Whenever possible, follow up with people individually for one-on-one conversations, in person if possible. Even socially distant while wearing a mask, those one-on-one meetings are a chance to build powerful connections.
One of my favorite things to do pre-pandemic was take walks across campus and talk to whomever I crossed paths with on my route. As I moved between meetings, I enjoyed stopping by classrooms and offices to see what was new with students, faculty and staff. Sometimes, I’d ask to join students at their tables in the residential restaurants to ask how things were going.
Those personal moments were joyfully important to me, and they are still possible — it just takes a little more work. Now, I schedule walks across campus even if I’m not traveling to a particular destination. Whenever possible, I schedule short meetings just to see people in person.
We can find joy, laughter and community, even in a pandemic. We just have to look for it a little harder sometimes.