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How to Be a Great Leader in Times of Crises

Paulo Moncores

Senior Engineering Manager at Shopify

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Problem

After the world has been stricken by an unprecedented crisis caused by Covid-19, my company -- after a much deliberation -- announced that it would go entirely remote in the future. It will be a huge change for everyone; our offices were places where people worked together, socialized, and had fun -- and now, suddenly, all of those activities will go remote. On top of that, for many, the recent transition to work from home brought additional stress in terms of arranging for child care, setting up an adequate work environment, being concerned about the health of their family and friends, etc.

Crises unleashed by Covid-19 made it harder for people to be focused on work and to stay connected and as a leader, I felt responsible to make their new situation easier. Times like these are times that clearly demonstrate a difference between leaders and managers and moreover, leaders who adhere to servant management principles and those who merely lead.

Actions taken

First and foremost, I wanted to make sure that people on my team understand that I genuinely care about them. Oftentimes when people express their care or concern, they lump that up in the same sentence that is more work-related and thus dilute their initial intentions. For example, How are you, will you be able to still make that deadline? I wanted to be unequivocally clear that in times like these people come first. If there is a deadline, I would still put people first and negotiate the deadline. Also, I wanted to show my empathy for them and their unique situation. As they would encounter unique difficulties I should be able to come up with a unique plan for every person.

I also made check-ins more frequent. Every meeting would start with a ten-minute long check-in. I would ask every person how they are doing (thumbs up/down/sideways) and that is something I find critically important. Also, every week we would come together for half an hour (or an hour) to talk about whatever the team wants to talk about. One-on-ones, especially during the crisis, shouldn’t be status reports meetings but should focus on one’s career development and what they want to do. Instead of inquiring about details of a project, I would use one-on-ones to explicitly convey the message that I am with my team and that we will get through the crisis together. We also hired a professional who is providing mental support to people who need it.

I introduced health check-ins that resemble retros but instead of talking about the particularities of a project, we would talk about things or people they care about. They could address undergoing changes, Covid-19-related problems, etc. Another thing I find exceedingly important in times of crisis is to share with my team why I wake up every morning and what makes me look forward to working eight hours every day. By sharing my passion, I hope to inspire them in these turbulent times when many things become meaningless. I don’t want to motivate them -- motivation is about pushing them to do things. I want to inspire them -- when they look at what I am doing, they should be inspired to do the same and give their absolute best. The only way to inspire people is to be passionate about what you do.

Finally, trust your team. The crisis will impact their performance, no doubt about it. They may miss a deadline, skip an important meeting, or their productivity may drop; but these are unprecedented times, and we should all learn from those mistakes. Let them figure out what went wrong and why. Playing a hero unaffected by the crises can hurt people and be counterproductive.

Lessons learned

  • Every person is unique and has its own way of coping with the crisis and you should come up with a specific plan for each and every person on the team.
  • We should be careful about how to maintain our social interaction now when we are remote. Use your creativity and new tools to create an atmosphere of connection, bonding, and attachment.
  • Understand the circles. There are things that fall under a circle of control. However, there are things that fall under a circle of influence that you can’t vouch for but you can provide input and things that you can’t do anything about. Don’t obsess about things you can’t do anything about. For example, I can’t control how long the Covid-19 pandemics will last, but I can control what kind of working environment I will provide for my team.
  • Be intentional. Rather than saying that you do social events, block time in your calendar and have action items to ensure that these events do happen.
  • Listen with empathy. I would always try to step into other people's shoes. Be aware that active listening is not the same as listening with empathy. Active listening is about understanding, listening with empathy is about feelings.

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Paulo Moncores

Senior Engineering Manager at Shopify


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