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"I, too, am struggling”: An Account of Leadership during the COVID-19 Pandemic | Technological Leadership Institute

Posted on
June 11, 2020
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“The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired with a tough young buck. For what purpose? To turn you into Olympic-class material.” 
- Epictetus

Bloomberg reported that the use of the word “unprecedented” has become the go-to descriptor during earnings season. As of this writing, three quarters of the 52 S&P 500 companies that had reported earnings used it.

However unprecedented this situation is, we must rely on our fundamental leadership skills, things we learned and practiced during the M.S. in Management of Technology (MOT) program, to endure and thrive. Chief amongst these skills is emotional intelligence.

Yes, technology leaders — the people aspect of our existence is more critical than ever.

Why emotional intelligence?

Volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous. This aptly describes 2020 so far and, likely, the immediate future. Our teams are looking at us for direction, for certainty and, many times, for emotional strength. This is more complex than a transformation or a project. There are no milestones, there is no budget — only fears, hopes and confusion.

So what is a leader to do? I don’t have a guaranteed method, nor will I bore you with the next “Do these 4 things and outlive COVID-19” clickbait. What I will share with you is what is working for my teams and my peers around the world. The following four actions are all strengths we hone in the MOT program. 

(Caution: Your mileage may vary, as the Reddit kids say.)

Acknowledge the uncertainty

Every single person in our team is experiencing this pandemic in a deeply personal manner. We are worried about friends and relatives’ safety, we worry about children’s education and we question our ability to stay put for weeks and months at a time. The range of emotions is too wide for a single solution. What is working for us is to give teams the psychological safety to feel validated. We remind our teams over and over that it is okay to feel anxious, that all emotions are valid and that we too have the same concerns. Acknowledging the chaos and being vulnerable about our concerns (though professionally) has strengthened the critical trust required to move forward.

Over-communicate — up, down and sideways

Our teams are distributed all over the world and they are hungry for information on what’s next. How’s the business doing? Is this or that person still employed? If left unanswered, these and other questions will quickly turn into massive distractions, or worse, rumors. We want to do what we can to be transparent with our teams so we are keeping everyone up to date through instant messaging, emails and personal 1 to 1 conversations. Even if we don’t have an answer, we are outlining the steps we are taking to reach it. We are also keeping our leaders and peers up to date on the team efforts and small victories and challenges. Teams respect this transparency and will trust that we’re focused on the successes that we can still achieve. 

One additional note on this: If you have had the unfortunate need to issue furloughs, reach out to those folks. Keep them engaged and up to date to the level that you can. They will appreciate your effort to keep them as part of the team.

Focus on what we can control

It is all too easy to lament losses or lack of resources preventing us from reaching objectives. For those of us heavily involved in planning, our months-long preparation for 2020 went out the window. Nevertheless, we remind our teams that we still have control over an important aspect of our work: our mindset.

While most plans changed, we have refocused on individual and local projects that in normal times never make it to the top of list, but today they’re the perfect vehicle to reinstate confidence in everyone’s span of control.

Test your up and coming leaders

This is the time to ensure that future leaders are paying attention and can put their growing leadership skills to work. We’ve been giving more responsibilities to high potential individuals and we are making sure they receive the exposure that acknowledges their increased accountability. It can be a status update, or something as simple as asking “what do you think we should do about …?” You will learn about their ability to navigate ambiguity, or you will realize that you’ll need to upgrade your talent after the crisis.

One critical goal for me: I am teaching my team, and learning at the same time, how to make and act on decisions.

In conclusion, we don’t know how long this crisis will last and, in fact, any plans I make seem to have a maximum shelf life of one week. So I acknowledge that and talk to my teams about it so that they understand why we must remain nimble and flexible. I am empowering them to self-organize and creating opportunities for new leaders to emerge.

If you ask me, this pandemic is providing a unique opportunity to build resilience. And more importantly, this pandemic has reminded me that at the end of the day, our most important job as technology leaders is to serve our people.

This blog was written by Santiago Vallejo, a 2018 graduate of the M.S. in Management of Technology (MOT) degree program. Currently, he is the senior director of client experience and operations at RoomIt by CWT.

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