2020’s Most Valuable Leadership Lesson
I grew up in Los Angeles, but when it came to work, I was raised in New York City.
Since moving back to the west coast after a meaningful amount of adult life in NYC, I’ve gone through a transformation (even pre-COVID) when it comes to how I run my business.
In New York, there are certain rules — both spoken and unspoken — about the way things should be done. For example, I was taught in my early years as an assistant account executive in advertising that junior employees should always work later than the senior staff, emails and memos should be written a certain way, meetings would be run so that senior clients speak first, and on and on. Working in big New York corporate culture taught me a number of rules that provided an important foundation and I’m truly grateful for that. I’ll admit that, for a period of time running my own business and PR agency, I expected people to understand and play by those same rules even though they may or may not have had that same kind of New York training.
And then COVID happened.
At the beginning of this year, there was a moment in time where I (and every other business owner) had to think about what’s truly most important. It was a complete reevaluation of all the things I believed to be true (fact!) about what works, what doesn’t, what’s good, what’s bad, and what are reasonable expectations, both for me and in some cases, for our clients. And I was left with the realization that after you cut all the BS, at the end of the day, we’re all just people doing our best — which is a big contrast to the corporate New York code I’d followed for most of my life.
2020, in all of its dysfunction, has ended up being the year of humanity.
I see it everywhere.
We’re all working from home, wearing sweatpants on Zoom calls. We’ve broken down these pretenses and made ourselves more accessible. Instead of immediately diving into work and going through the motions, people are starting meetings by genuinely checking in on each other.
Experiencing this global crisis together, whether we realize it or not, has made us all more aware of how nothing is guaranteed, life can change in an instant, and even though work matters, human beings and the relationships in our lives matter most.
The single biggest change we will see in leaders of the future is this heightened level of awareness.
It took awareness for business owners back in March and April to acknowledge the safe thing to do was to let their staff work from home — even if that was a radical shift from how their businesses had worked in the past.
It has taken awareness for company leaders, managers, and high-performers to reset their expectations and be more understanding with their employees: juggling work and parenting, taking care of mental health, etc.
And that awareness remains a priority for companies and their employees, customers, and clients as we navigate this new world together, by adjusting workflows and processes, by helping make things easier for each other, and even by just asking, “How are you doing these days?” at the beginning of a call.
It’s a process.
For example, at the end of April, as the pandemic was underway, our lease was up and we were getting ready to move offices. I had this choice at that moment about whether I should just put everything in storage knowing the coronavirus could go on for a while, or I could double-down on this really great space I’d found and move in, get things organized, and welcome the team back in a few weeks.
I decided I was ready for a change, so we made the move, had the whole place cleaned and sanitized, and since we have a small team, we reopened the office so everyone could come see the new place, sit in the big open deck six feet apart, and interact. And it was amazing! It felt like a rebirth of Stanton & Company. Everyone was so happy to see each other again and spend time as a group.
Then the case numbers started spiking again, and one of our employees tested positive for COVID (she hadn’t been in the office so everyone was safe), and all of a sudden the coronavirus was so close to home. Once again, I had to make a decision. And all of a sudden, no part of me was thinking about what the more “productive” thing would have been for the business. All I cared about was that everyone felt safe and protected — especially our very pregnant employee (who actually had a healthy baby boy this week!)
So we closed down the office again.
The key to continuing to move things forward — as businesses, as teams, and as people — is going to come down to maintaining this heightened level of awareness.
I don’t think the answer is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Now isn’t the time to throw our hands in the air and “give up,” but now also isn’t the time to micromanage people out of fear. Productivity in 2020 and beyond is going to require rigor in the context of this new landscape. It’s about determining what the really important pieces are in terms of maintaining high standards for your place of work, while simultaneously being compassionate and understanding about the current state of people’s lives.
In our line of work, this pandemic has really encouraged me to redefine what it means to have a “service mindset” in this new world. It used to be confined to, “Here’s your job. Here’s what the client wants. Here’s how to over-deliver for them.” But now, I believe the service mindset carries over into all aspects of life. It applies to your clients and customers. It applies to your team, co-workers, managers, and employers. And as we’re seeing as a country, it applies to everyone around you.
A service mindset means having the awareness to put others before yourself. To put humanity first.
And it starts with each of us.