#PassTheBaton: Getting Through The Race Against COVID-19 Together

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#PassTheBaton: Getting Through The Race Against COVID-19 Together

Are you and your organization not quite ready to withstand the race against the #COVID19 crisis? Indeed, the virus is a formidable opponent. But there’s good news. This race is not a marathon meant to go at it alone. It is a relay race we can win if we leverage our competencies, share resources, and remember what matters most—each other.

If you are in a leadership position, here are some tools to help you get to the other side– one leg at a time.

First Leg: Put People First! As leaders, when the ground shakes beneath us, what we hold onto as we seek to find stability sends a signal to others, especially our teams. It messages what we value most.

As the spaces we lead are faced with closures, interim transitions, and potential revenue losses, many of us are grappling with exceptionally challenging decisions. It is especially important that in this time of uncertainty, we strike a balance between ensuring the health and well-being of our employees and protecting our organizations’ long-term financial health and sustainability. These decisions are inseparably braided together. Despite the complexity of this time, we must find a way to message that we are stewards of our work, yes, but more importantly, advocates for our people and our collective well-being.

Chris Wink, President and Publisher at Technically Media, struck the delicate balance between demonstrating a commitment to his team and a commitment to their collective work. In a message to his staff late last week, he advised them of the importance of working from home.If there are logistical reasons why being in the office makes sense, do so; but that may change quickly. So try to lay low. I want you to know this decision does not come lightly. We are a business news organization, so we should understand more than most that changing our habits have downstream economic impacts. But collectively if we take a shorter-term hit on activity, we have a better chance at reducing the spread. You know, flattening that curve. I want us to contribute to that.” 

Wink’s values are unquestionably evident—people first. His commitment will likely be remembered by his staff well after this pandemic finally flattens out. Employer loyalty , studies show, translates to employee loyalty which in turn yields stronger performance. Simply put, when you put your people first, they prioritize the work they do on your behalf.

Second Leg: (Re)Design an Emergency Preparedness Plan and Team. There’s nothing like an emergency to show you your operational fault lines. As COVID-19 continues to knock on front doors, many leaders are finding themselves ill-equipped to handle this unwelcome visitor.

The reality is, whether you are the federal government, a global business, or a business of one, there will be some organizational bleeds you bandaged together over time, willfully ignoring their root cause. Now faced with an unexpected stress test, that tiny paper cut looks more like an uncontrollable hemorrhage.

If you do not have an emergency preparedness plan or if your plan has been sitting, dusty and dated, on a shelf, it’s not too late and…you’re not alone.

Some of the most seemingly well resourced organizations—from global corporations to foundations, school districts, local/federal government, and everything in between– are in the same boat! Emergency preparedness is something many of us simply do not do well. For instance, in 2018, the U.S. government’s pandemic response chain of command was decimated through a series of unprecedented firings. Today, no matter where we stand on the political spectrum, we see the impact of this decision. The federal government is ill prepared to adequately address this crisis as it struggles to build out a capable team prepared to respond, efficiently and expediently, to #COVID19.  Similarly, counties all over the U.S. who de-prioritized emergency preparedness from a health perspective are also finding themselves in a bind. Delaware County, PA, for example, does not have a health department. It is fully reliant on support from the state department of health which, by the way, must simultaneously address the macro-needs of all of Pennsylvania. Again, paper cuts are hemorrhaging.

How do you create a plan during a crisis? By expanding your decision-making table and adding new seats.  Avoid making critical decisions at narrow tables that devolve into leadership echo chambers. Include the needs and perspectives of your internal (employees) and external (customers) stakeholders. Often, there’s a knowledge gap between what the executive team believes about its stakeholders and what those closer to the front lines know to be true. Suspend organizational ego and let go of titles and divisional hats. Consider the actual competencies and voices you need at the decision-making table and give seating to individuals whose perspectives will be additive.

If you are a small business or even a one-woman shop, you may be thinking, “I don’t have the resources or the time to do this kind of work.” You may believe you are too busy working in the business to work on the business. As Michael Gerber’s E-Myth reminds us, if you plan to transition from mere surviving to thriving, you must prioritize doing both. A simple way to build out an immediate emergency preparedness plan in the midst of a chaotic time is to create an impromptu board of advisors. Think about your key needs (i.e. business continuity, inexpensive ways to operate remotely, hosting a virtual workshop, etc.) and reach out to those within your circle of influence to request some support. Chances are, there is someone within your network who has considered the issue you are dealing with and she may have solutions that help you avoid reinventing the wheel. Not sure who to call on? Comb through your LinkedIn network. It may feel unnatural to capacity-build this way but there is nothing natural about our current state. It’s OK to ask for help.

By the way, when this crisis is over (trust me, it will be), find a way to show gratitude to these new voices and to ensure their perspectives are better integrated in your permanent decision-making process.

Third Leg: Beware of Bias! It is at times like this, especially, that bias may run rampant. Despite our heightened state of anxiety, we cannot circumvent empathy and…well…common decency. In reviewing the media’s initial coverage of #COVID19, I was disturbed (but unfortunately not surprised) by the explicit bias that undergirded some stories about the virus. Some news outlets recklessly singled out and featured Asians in articles about the reach and impact of the virus across the United States. While impact across parts of Asia is certainly a part of the COVID-19 story, it is not the full story. Depicting certain people as the “face” of COVID-19 when in many cases the identity of those affected earlier was not disclosed was not only irresponsible reporting, it was biased behavior. Leaning into implicit or explicit bias, racism, or xenophobia is not an option—crisis or not.

As a leader, be sure to observe your role in dismantling bias as it shows up, discreetly or indiscreetly, in your organization. Just as we are exercising social distance to prevent the spread of the virus, let’s also distance ourselves from the ‘isms that plague our daily interactions and work. Model empathy, equity, and compassion. And if you see bias, interrupt it. Not sure how to move from passive bias awareness to active bias interruption? A great Harvard Business Review article on bias interruption by Joan C. Williams and Sky Mihaylo can be found here.

BONUS: On Crossing the Finish Line

#PassTheBaton. Admittedly, this is a tough race in unfamiliar terrain but we will get through it personally and professionally. Not convinced? Just look around at what is happening in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Across the country, parents are sharing tips on how to “homeschool” children during school shutdowns. The NBA’s Zion Williamson has pledged to pay Pelicans workers’ salaries during this time of financial instability for hourly workers. PECO, a utility company in Pennsylvania, is expanding its financial assistance program for its customers and suspending service shut-offs for those who have difficulty paying. Zoom’s CEO Eric Yuan is giving K-12 schools free videoconferencing as schools are transitioning to online modalities. Universities are working to accommodate hospitals’ potential patient overflow. Some companies are ensuring job security and a consistent paycheck to their most vulnerable employees. On a macro level, countries are sharing COVID-19 learnings with each other to expedite our global response. In Italy, in the middle of a country-wide lockdown, neighbors used social media to coordinate a massive “shelter-in-place” balcony concert. They sang their national anthem. Their choir is a global reminder: we are in this together.

You can do your part too! The race against COVID-19 has reminded us we are inextricably connected to each other. And we are responding in incredible ways. Instead of running away from one another in fear, we are running toward each other through acts of compassion. We have slipped into our #TeamGlobal uniforms, stretched our legs, brainpower and resources and readied to run—together. Isolating as this relay race may need to be, we are still functioning as one team.

As a leader, learn from this moment. Figure out what you can do to help your organization and your team. But don’t stop there. Think about how you can also help your community and that of others. Do your part–anything you can–then #PassTheBaton (remember to sanitize it well first).

Know that we will flatten the curve and get to the #COVID19 finish line TOGETHER.

 Uva C. Coles is an inclusive workforce strategist and a higher ed global engagement leader

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