How great leaders navigate unprecedented challenges

South Asian man with crossed arms in a conference room

8 mins, 24 secs read time

By now, businesses have long accepted that pivoting and continuously iterating is imperative for success in 2020. What that requires of leaders is the mobilization of their teams in entirely new ways – which in turn means they’re confronted with the challenge of how to best do so.

In this article, we'll touch upon the actions effective leaders can take in the face of uncertainty, as well as a few tips on what that looks like in practice.

Effective leaders prioritize communication. Uncertainty can lead to a myriad of reactions – confusion, fear, apathy, denial – all of which can paralyze teams. As a leader, your responsibility is to ensure that your team has the direction and support they need to do their jobs. That responsibility may sound simple, but in a situation where business priorities are ever-changing, knowing how, when and what to communicate to your team can be daunting.

Below are three areas of focus that have helped in communicating with my own team at Greenhouse.

Provide clarity

It’s important to communicate facts and to do so quickly. A prolonged lack of clarity can lead to rumors, misinformation and anxiousness. Your role as a leader is to be clear in what you’re saying so that your team understands what they should (and shouldn’t) do. That also means making sure to over-communicate the message you want them to hear. With so many changes and challenges in an uncertain world, it’s important to be sure your message is being heard by everyone who needs to hear it.

For example, CEO Daniel Chait recently addressed ongoing police brutality against African Americans in a direct, honest and authentic way while acknowledging the gravity of the issue.

As a Black employee, it’s so important to know that executive leadership supports me, and is a true ally, making actionable changes. It was very empowering to see my CEO proactively and vocally taking a clear stand against injustice.
– Micah Gebreyes, Greenhouse Senior Content Manager

Here are a few guidelines I’ve used in both team meetings and one-on-one conversations to help me communicate with clarity:

Share what you do know. You probably won’t have all the information you want but chances are that you have insights as a leader that may be helpful for your team to hear. Also, within reason, share what you anticipate could happen based on what you know and what that could mean for your team.

Next, share what youdon’t know. In times of uncertainty, when inaccurate information can seem ubiquitous, it’s just as important to acknowledge the things that you can’t verify or don’t have answers for. While that may be uncomfortable for you, it can help build dialogue with your team at a time when dialogue is critical.

Resist downplaying the situation your organization is facing. Downplaying may offer reassurance in the short run, but in the long run, it can damage well-earned trust. Tell your team what they need to know, especially if it directly impacts them. While being the messenger of news can often be a thankless job, it is your job as leader.

Do all of the above with the goal of helping your team. Focus on what information provides visibility and clarity, not what will perpetuate confusion or anxiousness.

Project calm

When your business is navigating unprecedented territory, you may feel nervous, unsettled or even afraid. That’s expected, and completely normal. Even so, despite the way you’re feeling internally, you can still project calmness externally. That doesn’t mean withholding how you truly feel and think – it’s about being conscious that the tone you set as a leader will ripple through your team.

Here are some exercises to help you be deliberate about the energy you’re projecting:

Take time before every meeting for simple self-reflection. Consider what kind of presence you want to offer. Then show up on time or maybe even a little early so that you’re prepared and composed.

Be mindful of how you’re speaking. Are your words rushed? Is your tone elevated? Do you have good wifi if on Zoom? (There’s nothing like a choppy connection to heighten the nerves!)

Be mindful of your body language. Are you providing eye contact? Is your posture reflecting confidence? If you’re attending virtually, are you fully visible and present? If you only show half your face, you might be sending the unintentional message that you’re only half-invested in the conversation.

Address concerns

The importance of addressing and acknowledging concerns cannot be overstated. I do my best to anticipate the concerns of my team and proactively answer as many questions as I can think of with this framing: “You may be wondering about X… here’s what I think.” Make space for and welcome all the questions your team may have – especially the hard ones. A team that is unable to communicate in a time of crisis is going to struggle to overcome it. For the questions you don’t know how to answer, be swift in finding the best answers you can, whether that means going to your manager or department head or CEO, and then sharing them with your team.

Just as importantly, make sure you’re hearing concerns from a diversity of perspectives. This is especially important when you’re navigating an unprecedented challenge, as our instinct might be to put up blinders and make decisions in a vacuum. Consider the unique background and needs of each person on your team.

Questions leaders at Greenhouse have asked themselves include:

  • Are there specific groups that are being disproportionately impacted by what your business is weathering? For example, if you’re transitioning to virtual work, what varying degrees of emotional and technical support are required on your team?
  • What kind of cultural competence do you as a leader have to demonstrate in order to understand and help each team member through a transition?
  • How do you create a safe space for each person to share their concerns?

The best approach I’ve found is to follow up one-on-one with each person to create that safe space for productive, personalized discussions.

Rally your team and scale support

Another area I’ve seen strong leaders focus on during a period of uncertainty is creating a sense of “togetherness.” In a crisis, there’s a tendency to prioritize self-preservation. However, a team that is unified and that actively uplifts each other multiplies the kind of support that a single manager can offer.

As a leader, create incentives and avenues through which your team can help each other. A few tactics include:

  • Publicly recognize those who demonstrate resilience, positivity and empathy, the key interpersonal skills for collectively overcoming a tumultuous period
  • Proactively assign projects that encourage interactions and collaborations among your team members.
  • Encourage virtual “hang” time that isn’t work-centric. Some of the best bonding and morale-boosting moments happen outside of work conversations (especially when you’re not there!)

At Greenhouse, a group of DE&I leaders are hosting “Virtual realities” sessions, a series of impactful small-group conversations that explore the effects of COVID-19 on today’s current affairs. The sessions offer a chance for people to gain a deeper understanding of their fellow team members and the communities that surround them, and cover topics from police brutality to mental health. They also help provide a sense of togetherness and improve group healing.

It’s also important to extend your help to other teams beyond yours. While it’s tempting to focus on your direct team, your responsibility as a leader is just as much about working cross-functionally with your peers and other senior leaders. Put processes in place to make your work visible so that the greater organization can not only know how you’re continuing to deliver for the business, but also identify opportunities for mutual support.

In a world of virtual work, where it’s harder to “see” the work that anyone else is doing in real time, project management platforms like Asana and interactive communication channels like Slack are especially useful.

Do for yourself what you would ask of others

Take care of yourself. Most of us who’ve traveled on a plane are familiar with the safety instruction of putting on your own air mask before assisting another person with theirs. The same idea applies to a leader trying to lead in a time of crisis or extended uncertainty. In order to support the wellbeing of others – through patience, active listening and constant communication – we need to ensure our own wellbeing, too.

For some, that means early morning meditation or reading a book over a cup of coffee before work. For others, it means getting in a workout or making time to have a meal without the distraction of the internet. Our CEO recently asked the entire Greenhouse staff to take a day off in May that worked best for our schedules, clearly reinforcing the importance of self-care.

With so many employees now working from home, the boundaries between our professional and personal lives have blurred in a way that makes “leaving” work or putting down a task list even more challenging. So, remind yourself – if you’re urging your team to take the time they need to process a transition, set an example and do the same. If you make the space to be attentive to your own feelings and even find moments of clarity and calm, you’ll be better positioned to do so for your team.

Finally, be kind to yourself. There’s no such thing as perfect leadership – whether in an economy that’s prospering or a climate as ever-changing as ours today. For many leaders, myself included, it’s frustratingly easy to focus on the faults we see in ourselves while over-focusing on the strengths we see in others, which can diminish our confidence in our own abilities.

There have been moments where I’ve stumbled and been responsible for words and actions that have had an unintended effect on those around me. However, it’s important that we exercise the same kindness with ourselves that we do with others and take each of our experiences, no matter how hard, as a valuable lesson in being the leader our teams need.

At Greenhouse, we believe that being a great leader starts with creating diverse and inclusive workplaces where everyone can be their true selves. Learn more about our mission here.

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Ariana Moon

Ariana Moon

leads the Talent Acquisition function at Greenhouse and is proud to be Greenhouse's longest-standing member of the People team. She works with all departmental leaders to hire for what’s next with the goal of modeling best-in-class, predictive recruiting. Outside of work, she is an avid yogi, rock climber and donut eater.