crisis life cycle - from firefighter to gardener

American resolve is on full display in this COVID-19 crisis. You are practicing physical distancing, you are more socially engaged than ever though virtual platforms, and your humanness is emerging quite nicely. In fact, humanness is emerging across communities, cities, and the country, if not the world. We are seeing innovative ways to care for others, educate, and engage people. We are seeing rays of hope and glimmers of unity, where what matters is taking care of each other.

Custodial staff, grocers, big box and general retailers, and delivery services are but a few of those we may have taken for granted previously. Now, along with first responders and medical professionals, they are part of the critical path to survival. As families and individuals, we are adapting to new routines. It is not easy, and sadly there have been tragedies along the way, but we are resilient people. We will survive this event. That is what Americans do—overcome adversity, adapt, and prosper.

This crisis is putting tremendous demands on leaders. Prioritizing tasks and time can be overwhelming. Add in the complexities of a distributed workforce and the uncertainty of when and how we will pivot to a new normal, and you might feel like you are always firefighting; do not. Leaders can get too focused on the fires when optimally, they should also be looking to identify the new normal and find opportunities for growth, akin to gardening. Have you spent time with your people cultivating trust, empathy, and purpose?

Ask yourself if you are working IN your business where you are likely serving customers, solving problems, making decisions, and perhaps experiencing online fatigue. Or are you working ON your business to build or refine a strategy, develop or strengthen your organizational culture, and emphasizing personal and team development? Engaging your middle management is a practical way to help you raise your gaze, spend time in the garden working on your business, and prepare for the new normal. And above all, take care of your people. They are looking TO you for guidance and AT you as an example now more than ever.

Strengthen Your Core – Engage Your Middle Management.

If you want to take the pulse of your business, ask the middle managers–the heart and soul, the CORE of your company. Many say middle management is the hardest job in business. They straddle the strategic and tactical levels of an organization, oscillate their thinking to focus up and down, manage a finite set of resources, and are responsible for day-to-day operations more than any other manager or leader. More importantly, they are the critical link to employee recruiting and retention, and ultimately, mission or project success. Ask yourself the following:

  • How are you taking care of your middle management, your CORE?
  • Are your CORE’s thoughts and ideas aligned to the success of your business?
  • How are you engaging your CORE to leverage their experience?
  • Have you provided the resources for your CORE to do their job?

Here is how a chief executive officer (CEO) engaged his CORE in a real-world example.

When COVID-19 shut down schools and workplaces, network demand skyrocketed. I listened to a telecommunications CEO trying to contend with increasing demand, service performance to existing customers, and network capacity. Several ideas on how to manage the increasing demand started floating amongst the staff. Senior leaders were also bouncing off ideas with their teams. They found a solution, or so they thought. The problem was more significant than expected, and while the first solution was helpful, it was a band-aid.

The CEO scheduled a virtual meeting with his CORE, where he described the challenge. He listened to the back and forth between the participants as they reframed the problem and tested solutions. Time was of the essence. In one instance, the CORE made the CEO aware of the risks and implications of a solution that he would not have known had he not engaged his CORE. Again, time was critical. The session ended with a clearly understood problem statement and a three-phased solution with buy-in across the senior and middle management levels. The CORE could now coach their teams on execution.

This engagement was not an all-hands event; it was an interaction. Participants asked open-ended questions, which is a great way to get connected and focus on the real problem (or problems). While the problem was a firefighting activity, its outcome was gardening. Aside from finding a solution, the best effect, and enduring quality out of this CORE engagement was humanness. The leader was open, vulnerable, empathetic, and honest. As the meeting continued, others followed his example of humanness, and the trust meter reached new heights. The CEO strengthened his organizational culture and is continuing these sessions to get through this crisis and beyond. As their new normal takes shape, he will be able to blend the intentions of top leaders with the knowledge and experiences of frontline employees.

Spend time in your garden nurturing habits, values, and the new normal with the CORE of your organization. Remember, your CORE has the most direct and recent experience, and with their involvement comes ownership that can lead to influence across your teams. Leverage the trust, connection, and collaboration you have generated, and then let your CORE coach their teams.

The best leaders recognize that the best ideas do not always come from the top. Carving out time and space for you to engage your middle management is a low cost and secure investment with a high payoff. Get them involved in your gardening. Stay well, healthy, and safe!

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