This is a Culture-Defining Moment: Leading & Connecting Through a Crisis

A few years ago, I was stuck in New York at JFK airport trying to get back to San Francisco. My fellow passengers and I were standing in our designated lines at our departure gate, ready to board. The boarding time had come and gone. After twenty minutes with no updates, people lined up to talk to the gate agent behind the desk.

But he didn’t talk to anyone – he was too busy talking on the phone. He seemed scattered, frustrated, and even angry. Then, he abruptly put on his jacket and left the desk without saying anything. We started talking with each other, making up the worst possible scenarios, looking at our phones, trying to figure out what was going on and what our action plan was. Was the flight canceled? Were we going to get home tonight to see our families? Should we look into booking a hotel for the night? Was it even safe to take this flight if it opened up again? The collective anxiety was palpable. 

As we were comparing our imagined scenarios with each other (and these are usually worse than reality), a woman named Diane confidently, intentionally, and even happily, walked behind the desk. She put her bag down and, before even taking off her jacket, got on the loudspeaker and told us, with a smile on her face, that she had no idea what was going on, but she would get back to us with an update within the next twenty minutes. There was a collective sigh of relief. While we still had no information, we had candor and a promise. We all calmed down knowing someone was now communicating with us. 

And communicate with us Diane did – every 20 minutes. 

First update: “OK, I just heard from the captain. He said we have a flat tire – yes, planes get flat tires, too – and they were working on getting a new one. The good news is that there are no engine issues, so this won’t take as long as we had thought.”

Second update: “OK, no new updates here, but I do have bottled water for everyone if you want one.” 

Third update: “Still no update, everyone. I’m talking to the captain soon.”

Fourth update: “OK, we got the tire! Still working on the timing of how long it will take to get on.”

Fifth update: “The tire is on and we should be ready to board by my next update.” 

Final update: “OK! Let’s board!”

That took about two hours. I have thought about that woman — and the man she replaced — a lot over the last few weeks as the Coronavirus has been unfolding. While we are obviously dealing with more than a flat tire on an airplane, there is one key takeaway from this story.

Leadership demands action. It also requires connection. 

One of my clients, Bonnie, was feeling the same way that man behind the boarding gate counter was feeling. She was getting feedback that her team needed to hear more from her, especially since they were all working at home because of the Coronavirus. 

Bonnie is a CEO of a fast-growing start-up. She is an experienced leader. She had already worked with her leadership team to set up a Work From Home policy, including making sure everyone had the equipment they needed to work. She made sure everyone was safe and gave updates on the business in the first all-company virtual meeting a few weeks ago. Everyone seemed like they were coping well, considering the circumstances. 

Yet, when I talked with her last week, she said she hadn’t sent anything out for several days to her team or the company because she thought everyone had already been overwhelmed with too much news and advice, too many updates and resources, and too much everything in between. What more was there to say? 

While everyone is getting inundated with too much information, the one thing employees wanted was to hear from Bonnie on a regular basis. They didn’t expect, want, or even need answers. They just wanted a consistent connection with their leader. 

She has since called a daily 10-minute virtual standup this week with her leadership team. Each leader is doing the same with their teams. She is having a virtual All Hands meeting every Friday. Her team has said it’s the best part of their day. And it’s not about business or the Coronavirus. It’s about how everyone is feeling, how they are coping, and even sharing team best practices like having virtual happy hours. 

Bonnie is also checking in on Slack channels. She is sharing movies she recently watched on Netflix and asking others for their recommendations. The team feels closer than they have felt in months even though they are all going through one of the toughest crises any of us has ever experienced. 

A recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out that, “Crises teach us that CEOS (and leaders) aren’t expected to be as right as they are expected to be engaged.” Connection doesn’t just have to be about informal discussion. It can include a discussion about scenario-planning or different ways of thinking about the business. It can even be about Netflix recommendations. Whatever it’s about, it just needs to forge human connection.

We are all craving more connection now. Social distancing does not mean social disconnection. Hop into a Slack channel and say “hello.” Pull your team together and ask how everyone is doing, starting with sharing about yourself. Share updates, even if you don’t have all the answers. 

This is a crisis. It’s also a culture-defining moment. Your leadership and culture are built through the big moments and revealed through the smaller ones. 

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