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2020 has taught us a lot about leadership. Let’s not forget it.

Leadership advice from Robin Pou

Leadership is hard during the best of times. Throw in a crisis, such as a global pandemic or national social unrust, and even the strongest leaders are left questioning their decisions and looking for answers to get their teams and companies to the other side. But it’s precisely during these turbulent times when true leaders emerge, no matter their job titles or where they sit in the organization.

To help our clients — and ourselves — learn to be more confident leaders heading into 2021, we asked for some advice from B+C client Robin Pou. As a chief adviser and strategist to Fortune 500 executives, he has a lot of wisdom to share — especially now, after coaching his clients through an especially tough year.

Here are some highlights from our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity. To get more insights from Robin, we encourage you to sign up for his newsletter, The Confident Leader.

Belo + Company: How is leading through a crisis such as a pandemic different from leading during good times? Are the fundamental principles the same but perhaps the priorities shift?

Robin Pou: What’s happening that’s different than good times is that leaders are highly triggered. When you have an event like a pandemic or a crisis, if you’re not aware of the way your mind works, you could be susceptible to leading completely differently.

There are two parts of the brain: the amygdala and the frontal cortex. Your amygdala governs your fight-or-flight instinct. Most leaders fell prey to this survival mechanism in the middle of March to early May, partly because there were real, practical applications to survival: furloughs, layoffs, cutting expenses, etc.

When you’re in survival mode, your amygdala hijacks your frontal lobe, the one for logic and reasoning. So if you’re not aware of that, if you’re unable to regain your brain, you’re going to lead differently. Your emotions — fear, anxiety — will take lead and have an impact on the organization.

That’s compounded by the fact that there is no end in sight from a business leader’s perspective. I’m not speaking about anything related to a recession or politics. This situation is unprecedented for this generation of leaders as it relates to what’s in the playbook.

So they have this recency bias in their brain — “last month it was bad, therefore it’s going to continue to be bad” — unless they’re able to rise above that. Many can lead well when things are going well. Cash covers a lot of sin. Fewer are able to lead when the circumstances have turned against them. It’s a very small pool. 

B+C: This is a shared experience between leaders and their teams. Most of us are at home, working and caring for our families. There’s a collective anxiety about the unknown. So how can leaders keep their teams focused and motivated when they themselves are struggling? 

RP: This is where leaders who are worth their salt actually earn their leadership rank. There’s a quote that says, “Crises are what forge a leader.” Think about war times. We’ve just lost the past two battles, but you, as the general, have to gear up your group to go into battle again.

If the leader doesn’t have a clear vision into the future, then nobody they’re leading will fill the gap. This is about that leader being resilient, having clear expectations, and constantly communicating the progress — even if that progress happens to be two steps back. That’s the point when they can say, “Let’s learn from our mistakes. We’re going to be 1% better tomorrow.”

A good example is a leader who had to shut down his business. He furloughed his people and said, “I’m going to restart the business in the middle of June. Here’s the plan. I’m going to call you, and I’m going to call only once, because I’m going to rehire you. You’re going to be making more from ‘super’ unemployment, but it’s going to cease at the end of July. So I’m offering you a future, and I’m going to communicate with you during the furlough.”

This a guy who had a plan that allowed him to stay resilient, and he projected that resilience to his team. He set clear expectations about what response from them would be acceptable for fulfilling that plan and then communicated with them throughout the shutdown.

There is no no silver bullet to these challenges. It’s just clear fundamentals. Even though we’re not physically together, as a leader you can stay resilient, show up and work hard, communicate a plan and expectations, and give regular status updates. These are core leadership elements, but only a small percentage of leaders are able to handle it because of the exact thing you’re talking about: We’re all in the same boat, having the same traumatic experience. 

B+C: Thanks to Zoom, we have windows into each other’s lives that we didn’t have before — kids and partners and pets in the background while we’re talking about business and trying to project an air of professionalism. When leaders are trying to hold things together, to project confidence and reassure their teams, is it possible for them to be too transparent? 

RP: Let’s figure out what we mean by “transparency.” I would opt for “genuine,” “authentic,” and “open,” all based on a foundation of truth. Although “transparency” is the buzzword.

If a leader is closed off during good times, when they say, “I’ll tell you what you need to know and nothing more,” then his or her team is going to respond with, “Why aren’t you just telling us what’s going on?” The people they’re leading wonder “what else?” because there’s a gap in information. 

When there’s a gap, the team will just make up their own story. But they don’t have all of the information because they don’t sit at “the” table, so they’re bound to make up a story often that isn’t accurate, but they believe it’s true. So you’re not really doing your team a service by not being open and genuine and authentic.

As it relates to our current work environment, it’s fine to say, “Hey, I want to let you know that I’ve got two kids working from home today, who are trying to do online school, but one is 6 and one is 8, so please forgive the interruption.” We’ve got to give each other grace for those things. But it does highlight this question of, well, what else should we be privy to now that we have this unique window into everyone’s personal life?

What I think is best, and I coach this in good times and in war times, is that leaders should narrate what they’re doing and why. Leaders who are not progressive in their leadership skills will say, “Well, why do I have to tell them why I’m doing something? They should just take it at face value and move on.” But that’s borderline professional laziness, not wanting to spend the time, or low empathy, because their people actually want to understand why.

Leaders are missing the boat when they’re not choosing to be transparent in the spirit of the way that you’re asking about, because they’re not conditioned to do it. And because they’re in a crisis and they’re having an emotional experience, they don’t want to let that out. They don’t trust themselves because they haven’t developed that skill to be able to narrate what’s going on with them, so they’ll hold back. 

If you’re not transparent in good times, chances are you’re not going to be transparent during war times. But you should be more transparent, because the workforce of tomorrow is going to require that transparency.

Now, to the heart of your question: Can you be too transparent? Yes. If you say, “I drank two bottles of wine last night because I was so depressed, and I’m hungover and I can’t really lead the meeting well,” that’s not a level of transparency that is professional. 

You can say, “You know what? I’m having a really hard day today because the pandemic is wearing on me. I think I’m going to be better if we’re able to talk later this afternoon.” That’s transparent. 

That way, your team sees that you’re human, sees that you’re actually struggling with this. But that doesn’t mean that you’re going to shirk your responsibilities with excuses or blame.

So if we talk about etiquette and professionalism, there is an opportunity for leaders to be more forthright and forthcoming with what they’re experiencing while then going back to the previous question — being resilient, having a plan, communicating expectations, etc.

B+C: What lasting change do you see coming out of this challenging time? What should we hang onto after this is over? 

RP: My personal opinion is that we’re very forgetful people and that 12 months from now, we’ll be back to our regular routine of hurry and race around. Once we no longer have the threat of physical harm — either because the virus has run its course or we have a vaccine — we will just forget what it was like.

In my coaching, I have asked my clients to write down what they’ve learned from the pandemic, while we’re in the thick of it, and what they want to carry forward. What I’m observing and taking for myself from COVID is that presuming on the future is a fool’s errand. I understand businesses have to forecast, but I think you’re going to see a much more agile software development method of forecasting for the future, so that we change more quickly as opposed to setting the budget for the entire year.

I think everybody is realizing, “Wow, I need to invest in those relationships that matter most to me because when I’m spread so thin, I’m not really investing in them in the way that I want, and I need them. I want to give and I want to receive.”

So I’m encouraging my clients to really use this time to invest in relationships for the long haul. This is the pause button to create the stronger bond and model the relationships that they should be having with the people below them. 

I think that’s more hopeful than anything, because I think we’re forgetful and we’re going to go back to full tilt.

B+C: Often a leader’s performance is tied to revenue, how the company itself performs. So how can we define success, and more specifically growth, when increasing revenue may be off the table, at least for the short term? 

RP: Three years ago I started a CEO round table called The Peer Group that meets monthly. Recently we discussed how to define growth in the middle of a pandemic. Basically, there are five categories for growth that aren’t necessarily anchored to revenue year over year.

One of these executives doesn’t look at comps from last year because the performance is minuscule in comparison. He’s saying, “Did we do better today than we did yesterday?” He’s bringing in the timeframe super tight to evaluate. If they sold two widgets yesterday, did they sell two and a half or three today? If they did, that’s a win, and they celebrate that.

Another way to think about growth is to compare yourself to the competition. If you’re a fashion company and you’re down only 17%, but all your competitors are down 35%, then being down 17% is actually a victory because your industry is trending worse.

You can also just change what you’re tracking, your KPIs. One of my clients isn’t actually going to grow in revenue, but they’ve added new clients who will be future revenue for them. They’re focusing on relationships even though the revenue lags. So they’re tracking revenue along with tracking new client units.

Some people are saying, “Growth is just not available to us, so we’re going to take our dry powder and we’re going to invest for the long term.” Whether that’s buying a company or investing in a new revenue stream, that’s growth for them.

The other one is what I’m calling fortify the base, so growth is improving processes. Building tighter relationships with employees. Investing in leaders for when the new normal arrives.

B+C: Speaking of investing in leaders, future leaders, what are some of the things coming up at your round table? How are your clients investing in future leaders at their own companies?

RP: They’ve got to identify their core values, the DNA of the organization, and then evaluate those leaders according to that DNA. What they’re going to find are gaps between those values and the skills of their leaders, and they need to fill the gaps. That could be attending a leadership webinar. That could be getting a coach. That could be going to leadership training. That could be an executive team reading Crucial Conversations to improve their communication skills. That could be creating a peer group inside the organization so they are supporting one another through that transparency, that genuineness, that authenticity.

I’ve got a request for a proposal for 2021 in which they are saying, “Here are four leadership bands, and we would like for you to design, lead, and facilitate leadership training for these groups.” It ranges from group coaching for the super-high executives all the way down to training lower-level managers on the skills they need to be successful. They are investing a significant amount of money to increase the skill level and therefore performance of their team, their leaders.

B+C: Let’s talk about balance. Do you have a sense of what that can look like while we’re still in crisis?

RP: I have a bias that balance is not the goal to shoot for. Balance is hard. In my coaching model, I prefer priority. Celebrate the trade-offs. “I’m so sorry that I’m not able to do this, but it’s because I was able to do this over here.” 

If you don’t have a forced ranked list of priorities — what comes before something else on the list — then you never know how to make a decision. 

B+C: I like how you’re encouraging us to reframe these conversations, that maybe instead of “transparency,” as we talked about earlier, we should strive for “authenticity.” And instead of finding “balance,” we simply need to articulate our priorities, both at work and at home. 

RP: I think about the working mom, the single parent, and if she’s thinking that her responsibility is to balance, that puts an onus on her that’s really, really tough. Whereas if we change the conversation slightly and say, “Well, what are the priorities?” Then I can actually do something with that for her. Because what’s not going to show up on that list is her. 

She has to have time for herself, because if she’s not putting her oxygen mask on first, she’s going to run out of oxygen and then she’s going to drop all the balls.

The priorities conversation is so that it can be actionable. I haven’t met anyone who’s got the formula for working through balance, because we’re talking about making decisions to keep it in balance. But what’s the measuring stick for how we make those decisions? If it’s just, “I have 24 hours in the day, and I will try and do everything to keep it all in balance,” then you’re going to go to bed frustrated because you feel like every single person in your life is upset with you because they didn’t get enough.

I had one client literally say, “My day-to-day is trying to keep as many people from feeling like I let them down.” And I was like, “Well, how’s that working for you?” He goes, “Not very well.” I asked, “Is that the way you want to live?” He said, “No.” I said, “Okay, we can do something about that.”

When you’re letting somebody down, you haven’t set clear expectations as to what you’re able to do. Set your priorities and communicate them clearly. You can’t be everything to everyone.

B+C: Do you have any stories to share about your clients — people who’ve had breakthrough moments that could inspire someone reading this?

RP: It’s important to note that every single leader has been tempted to give up or thought they wouldn’t be able to do it. That needs to be understood, because we’re all having the same experience, and we’re all human. So let’s just dispel the myth that some people are superheroes and others aren’t. We’re having the same experience at the same time with the same feelings.

Now, these folks have stayed in the game. They would say it’s because they’ve had somebody on the outside giving them insight. 

One is in a professional services organization. He hired a person, but he had to be creative with the compensation to afford this individual. But now he’s getting ready to double or quadruple his revenue as a result of this individual coming on.

Another client is in sales in the fashion industry, so they have watched the retail apocalypse over the past two or three years. Two years ago they started investing in a technology that would take their in-person sales virtual, and this was before they knew a pandemic was coming. 

Some of those salespeople — let’s say 20 to 30% of them — have had their best months ever because they have this new product, and they’re actually taking market share.

Oh, this is a really good one. This guy had six deals going during the pandemic. The minute the pandemic hit, all of his investor resources dried up, which meant that he wasn’t going to be able to close on those deals and he was going to lose his earnest money. He scraped, he changed his deal terms in order to make them more attractive, he did everything he possibly could to find new investors, and he closed on every single one of those deals, when all of his competitors failed to close on in-process transactions. That’s a huge win, right?

It gets better. Because he was able to fulfill his commitments and get those deals over the finish line in the middle of a pandemic, he’s now thought of in the industry as the guy who can get things done. He’s now getting calls for hip pocket deals that aren’t even hitting the market, so he’s not having to competitively bid on them, and he’s able to get his full terms because people know he’s going to be able to close. And we’re talking kajillions of dollars, because he chose to resist the easy route and it paid off.

Another client came out on Twitter, I want to say like April 1, and said, “I’m not going to let any of my people go, and I’m going to pay them no matter what happens.” And he has 600 line worker employees. 

His single largest investor called and beat him up like crazy. “I’m not going to lay them off,” he said. “We care about people over here.” 

My client has been able to rebound because people know that his production lines are open, so they’re buying things. Not at the rate they bought them before, but he’s profit positive.

A colleague of his, in a totally different business, couldn’t rehire the workers he laid off or furloughed because they were making more money on unemployment than they would be if they were with him. So he’s not able to snap back.

So this leader went out on a limb, stayed true to his relationships and values, even if that meant paying employees out of his own pocket. His buddy, who employed the same number of people with the same types of families, can’t rebound his business and may face bankruptcy because he’s got too much of a debt load and got rid of his single greatest asset — his employees — out of fear.

These are incredible stories of courage and counterintuitive business decisions in the middle of a pandemic, and they didn’t even have to wait until the good times to benefit from the hard decisions they made back in April.

Chief adviser and strategist Robin Pou works with leaders of high-growth companies and Fortune 500 executives from well-known brands such as Match Group, Pioneer Natural Resources, and GM Financial. His first book, Performance Intelligence at Work, helps leaders employ the principles of sports psychology to achieve peak performance levels. His upcoming book, available in 2021, dispels the myths associated with the doubt that top leaders experience and gives them a concrete approach to increase their leadership confidence and handle any challenge.

Jennifer Chininis
Jennifer Chininis
Jennifer Chininis is the vice president of inbound marketing at Belo + Company. She’s spent her career connecting to people through content, both as an editor and a marketer. She lives to eat, travel, and teach the world about the superiority of the serial comma.