“The More We Value Things Outside of Our Control the Less Control We Have” Epictitus
It has been more than three months since we sent everybody at our company to work from home. We are all aware of the crises before us. Millions of job losses, a global health crisis and intense political division. In short… it certainly feels like chaos has arrived.
However, during this time, our company has grown. We have hired 10 people, retained more than 250 new clients, opened 2 additional offices and paid bonuses to every person in our company.
It’s Always What You Choose to Focus On
I keep a list on my OneNote (my preferred notebook of choice) of Emergency Situations. The list contains things that could go wrong, things that could severely damage the company. Things like, losing a key employee, cash flow consistently drops below certain levels, and one of our core technology platforms announces a shut down. I update the list about every six to nine months. I spend time thinking about solutions to these potential issues that could rock the company when times are calm. That way, if something does go wrong, I’ve thought about the solution with a calm head prior to it happening. Then I can simply execute the plan. Think of it as one of those In Case of Emergency pamphlets in the airplane seat back. Thankfully, I have never had to consult the list yet.
A few days after we moved our team home I went to the list. Unfortunately, it didn’t say… “1918 Pandemic, The Great Depression and ’68 Riots” anywhere on it. So, I had to look somewhere else.
I turned to my reading list. There were three books that I decided to re-read, Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin, How to Be a Leader, An Ancient Guide to Wise Leadership by Plutarch (this was actually my first read of this book, it was just published in November), and Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t by Simon Sinek.
Leadership in Turbulent Times is a brilliant account of the histories of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon Baines Johnson. Kearns Goodwin details each of their backgrounds from childhood through their rise to power, their individual challenges and the crisis they each faced in their respective presidencies. Most importantly, she skillfully breaks down their styles of emotional and practical leadership when faced with long-term sustained catastrophic crisis. It is often said that every presidency will face a crisis. How they handle the crisis is how they will be remembered. Reading the specific accounts of how Lincoln’s struggles leading to his presidency affected how he was able to navigate the civil war and end slavery is amazing. I understand why he is often listed as the best President of our history. There are incredible lessons from each of these leaders that even the best of us can learn from. This book is going to get another read at some point soon.
How to Be a Leader, An Ancient Guide to Wise Leadership, Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers, Plutarch, Jeffrey Beneker (editor and translator), is a collection of three of Plutarch’s essays on leadership and politics. Plutarch, an Ancient Greek philosopher, biographer, essayist and priest. He was also a local magistrate and consul. He studied ancient leaders, both Roman and Greek and documented his findings into a long series of essays, many of which are still available. He profiled the lives of leaders and found commonalities. He himself could often be heard saying “city before self”. The best leaders always put their people before themselves. This one is a quick read and well worth it.
Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek is still one of my favorite books. Leaders Eat Last was an important book in my development as a leader. It opened my eyes to the intense importance of creating safety in the workplace and putting stakeholders first. Often when crisis occur, the first thing people do is look to save themselves or their business. “Where can we cut?” is generally the first question. If you are a great leader, you will resist this urge and figure out any way to avoid cutting anything. Look to your team. Make sure they still feel safe and they will help save the business. I also just finished Sinek’s newest book, The Infinite Game (about long-term versus short term thinking).
I immediately tried to distill the stories and lessons from these books into a path forward for our small company. I found a common theme through the stories of these leaders. Regardless of the situations that confronted them, the outcomes always depended on their ability to have extreme focus on the crisis, their management skill, their integrity and how they lead with empathy towards the people that mattered most. For me, this means my team, clients and community. Great leaders, although some may have been prone to outbursts and outward displays of stress, were able to lead through the crisis because they were direct, clear, and calm. They become more empathetic, not less. They become more inclusive, not less. They gathered facts quickly, had foresight, communicated and delegated well. They acted with calm urgency. Most importantly, they were focused on the task at hand.
We are a young company, just shy of six years. We have grown quickly and were in the middle of another phase of expansion when the pandemic hit. I knew that there was not much time to decide and act.
Here’s What We Focused On
Anticipation, Strategy & Measured but Quick Action: In the movie Margin Call (2011) about the days leading up to the market crash of the Great Recession, Jeremy Irons plays the CEO and Chairman of a fictional investment bank (think Goldman Sachs). Iron’s realizes, before others, that the banks’ open positions in their mortgage backed securities are about to bankrupt the company and are likely going to destroy the world economy. In a great exchange about the foresight of the impending doom and his decision to sell all their positions to unsuspecting buyers, Irons says to Kevin Spacey, “Do you know why I get paid the big-bucks?, because once a year I’m asked to predict the future.”
As CEO’s and leaders in your company, this is your job. Predict the future. We first went to the data. We analyzed our current caseload, marketing trends, the potential market, our budgets, burn rates, etc. In the first few weeks our leadership team met daily to get an idea of what was really happening. While I was ready to make some quick decisions, Bilal, my partner smartly suggested we wait before we do anything. This would allow us to see any emerging trends. We did. And he was right, several of the trends were positive. During that time, I went back to the news to try to understand the impact the crisis would have on our company. With the intense level of partisanship driving our media it was difficult to find something that had actual facts! We came to several early conclusions that so far have worked out well. We concluded, if we laid people off we would not be able to service the clients we had, the spiral down would begin. We also found that our competition was immediately running scared, cutting marketing and cutting staff. We saw the price of many of our marketing channels drastically reduce in price. We realized, if we simply increased marketing (at a steep discount), got our team focused, clearly and carefully messaged to clients and community, we might be just fine. Within weeks it was clear we would be just fine and decided to head back to our plans of expansion. We began to see this as opportunity, not doom.
Empathy: Our people experienced the same emotions as everyone else. Confusion and fear. Certainly their first fear was losing their job. We wanted to make them feel safe and make sure they felt secure for them and their families. I personally started calling our staff, trying to show them how much we cared and valued them. Ensuring them we were doing everything we could to keep the company open. We also wanted to make sure they knew we trusted them to do their jobs from home. Empathy builds trust. We wanted them to know we cared. Caring and empathy are both core values of our company. If we can’t do it now, during this crisis, then we truly have no values.
We joined the national small business “No Layoff Pledge” to help show our team how committed we were to making sure they knew they were safe. We also wanted to get their own focus off of themselves and their own situation and back onto the clients and our community. We have amazing, caring people at our company. So, we started the #5000PWCMasks program. We bought masks for the clients and the community. We had our staff start calling our current and former clients, seeing how they were and sent masks to any of them that needed them for them and their families. We also started sending masks to community organizations that needed them. Not surprisingly, this also led to signing several new clients.
We also spent time coaching our team even more on the importance of being more focused on the clients. Leading their client interactions with more empathy, time and attention. This helped them get the focus away from their own situations.
Communication and Transparency: In the first few weeks, my goal was to make my team feel safe. We met with the team several times a week, gave them clear standards and directives. We asked them to be ready to help out and increase their efforts. From there, it was actually convincing them, not only were we going to be okay but opportunity lay ahead. I think many of them thought I was a bit crazy. While everyone else was laying people off, we were going to increase our marketing and start hiring again.
We were careful in our messaging to our team. We wanted to be absolutely sure they felt we were being straight and honest with them. We wanted to provide them with solid factual information. As things started to level off and our new norms began to set in. The need for constant meetings began to wain. Three months down the road and we have gone back to normal levels of meetings. Our events have increased – we now have (all virtual) game nights, movie nights, group meditation sessions and a fund-raising challenges for local non-profits.
Hard-Work and Breaks: Over the past few months we have asked our people to be more focused on work than ever. Work over chaos. We know that this can lead to serious burnout, especially working from home where there is little separation between home and work. We have also encouraged breaks and time away. My routine has not changed. I still take time to clear my head, exercise in our home gym (our tiny living room, now complete with kettle bells, a Peloton, TRX and lots of bands) and have increased my meditation practice. We have encouraged our team to do the same. We have asked each person to take at least 30 minutes a day – on the company clock – away from work. Meditate, exercise, take care of family or simply take a nap. Sensing the burnout and need for full time away, we also altered our PTO policy to allow each of our team to start taking time off (shorter than normal) in a round-robin. That was everyone can start getting a break. Once everyone can get some time off and soon we can go back to normal vacation times.
Appreciation: Since the shutdown, I’ve only been to my office once. To pick up my personalized cards so I could send thank you notes to staff and clients every few days. We have also paid bonuses to everyone at our company and are about to announce (shhh) that second quarter bonuses will be going out to everyone just like normal and that the immediate wage freeze we did at the beginning of the crises is about to be lifted. We’ve hosting Zoom pizza parties (where we sent everyone pizzas to their house for them and their families), had movie nights and game nights with prizes. Most importantly, we say thank you and check in with our people more than ever.
Being a leader is far more complicated than the simple title bestowed upon you. Many of us were thrust into leadership because we took the risk and wanted to start a company. Although company leadership is always challenging, it is less challenging when economies are good, something we may not see for a long time. The future of many companies, their employees well-being and the clients they serve will depend on how focused the leader is – so focus on what matters.
Eric Farber is the author of the bestselling book, The Case for Culture, How to Stop Being a Slave to Your Law Firm, Grow Your Practice and Be Happy. Eric is on a mission to change how law firms operate by showing lawyers the value of putting culture first. During his twenty-five years as a lawyer, Eric has lived the transformation from scarcity to abundance that becomes possible when you shift your perspective and prioritize people.
As the CEO and chief legal officer of Pacific Workers’ Compensation Law Center, Eric’s focus on culture helped him build a seven-figure firm that’s gone from four people to fifty in just over five years, been an Inc. 5000 company twice, was named to the Bay Area 100 list of fastest-growing companies, and spent two consecutive years in the top fifty of Law Firm 500.
The Case for Culture was named by Forbes Magazine as a Top 8 Book to “Reconsider How You Manage Relationships“.
You can find your copy of the Case for Culture at Amazon, in hardback, paperback, Kindle and Audible.
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