Five Actions from the Frontline of Entrepreneurial Leadership
For many entrepreneurs, the last month has been the most challenging time in their careers. Having to balance health concerns for everyone in their personal and professional vicinity, along with a crushing change in the economy, has pushed business leaders to the edge.
But it’s also a time when employees, customers, and colleagues are looking to company founders for leadership and guidance. What should you say to people who are concerned about their jobs and their future? I’ve been talking with leaders and founders at companies both large and small over the past few weeks about how to communicate in a crisis. After hearing their concerns and constraints, I’d like to offer some suggestions based on years of work with more than 500 companies.
1. Find Your North Star
One of the first things to recognize is that not everyone has this figured out. Big companies may battle with a lot of input for various business units. Meanwhile, smaller companies may struggle to establish a position of calm leadership while feeling like waves are crashing around them.
Nearly everyone’s first reaction is that more communication is better than less. Not so. The most important aspect is to be in alignment around communication at all leadership levels. Decide, “What are the things that matter for the future of our business?” Identifying those non-negotiable things that you will always stand for—ethics, values, how you treat others (both team members and customers)—as a starting point will allow you to communicate from a position of clarity, strength, and sincerity.
2. Recognize Generational Differences In Communication
The current global pandemic is an unprecedented time for everyone. Some of your team members and customers have been through deeply challenging times before: wars, recessions, the dotcom bust, and terrorism. Other team members may have just taken their first job with your company and never experienced a macro-economic event like this while in the workforce. As a leader, it’s important to be sensitive to the views, perspectives, and experiences of other generations if you want to drive trust and engagement in your communication.
At CGK, our generational research and strategy center, we call this Generational Context. Without this context, the way you approach and communicate may not line up with your audience—both younger or older. The more you can put yourself in their mindset and perspective, the better you can serve and support them.
Generational Context is especially important when communicating with your team members. We find it helpful to step back and ask yourself, “What are their fears and concerns right now?” For some, it will be that they’re going to get laid off or lose their health insurance. Some may not be sure how to pay their rent, car payment, or help out another family member.
Great leaders realize that their top priorities and the top priorities of those on their team may not be the same. In times of crisis, people often move towards what’s most important to them, both in terms of overcoming fear and providing security. It helps to understand that not everyone is aligned and moving in the same direction as the organization’s leaders, but they can be with the right communication and leadership.
3. Choose the Right Medium for Your Message and Audience
What works with one group of team members may not work well with others, yet everyone must get the message you’re sending. A Zoom video or Slack channel may be efficient, but if the information you share in that video would also be of interest to an employee’s spouse or significant other, include another way to share that information outside the organization, such as an email or post on your company intranet.
Choosing the communication method is particularly important because people are afraid and anxious right now with so much uncertainty swirling around. That makes it hard to hear a message, remember the message, and then accurately repeat it to someone else who wasn’t there. FAQ pages and other mobile-friendly resources are effective ways to reinforce messages that are delivered internally by video, chat or email.
4. Don’t Fall into The Trap That Crushes Trust
Because we’re all under stress, you may feel additional pressure to fall into the trap of reassuring people by telling them what they want to hear. Resist this temptation. If you don’t know whether everybody will keep their job, don’t go out and tell people that they’re all going to get to keep their job. Because if you end up having to do layoffs two weeks later, you’ve significantly hurt your trust and credibility with those who stay on. As a leader, you must decide the key points that you can message based on the best information you have.
When it comes to communicating with customers, there can be a sense that your product or service is just what they need right now to deal with the current pandemic. It’s critical not to come off as an opportunist and sound tone-deaf to the difficult reality facing so many people and organizations. That’s one of the fastest ways to lose trust and credibility and ultimately lose customers. People don’t want opportunistic sales pitches or marketing pitches right now.
Instead, people want a resource they can trust and want to know that you have their back. Let them know that you’re there for them, working on their behalf, and ready to jump on the phone or on Zoom to talk. You understand it’s tough, and you’re there to help.
People will remember if you took the time to reach out and check on them—even if it’s just to say hello and that you’re thinking of them. You don’t have to mention your brand, product, or the latest sales pitch. They know where you work, and they’ve received 87 sales pitches in the last week, all with COVID-19 in the email subject line—so be different and connect with them as a human. If you have resources that might be helpful, make them easy and free to access. We’re all in this together. The more you show you are there for them, the more they’ll buy when they’re ready because they know they can count on you.
5. Deliver Bad News With Empathy
Even if you do everything right, circumstances may still force you to deliver bad news. Layoffs, furloughs, and unfulfilled commitments are in the headlines every day and will likely stay there for a while.
Keep in mind that when you deliver bad news, it’s not the only bad news your audience has received in the past few weeks. That makes it more critical than ever that you deliver the news with empathy and candor, and remain available to answer any questions. How you deliver bad news not only impacts those you are delivering the news to, but also word will travel to everyone else about how you handled the situation.
The worst thing you can do for company culture, trust, and buy-in right now is to deliver bad news in a generic email because that makes people feel like you don’t care about them. I would go so far as to say that if you have the choice of sharing bad news by email or Zoom, share it by Zoom. Show people you took the time to talk with them personally whenever possible. Hiding behind a mass email makes it easier for them to have a very negative response versus actually seeing you, talking with you, and getting treated with dignity.
Most of All—Remember That We’re All In This Together
It’s okay if your communication isn’t perfect. People are more forgiving right now, whether for a child walking into the background of a Zoom meeting or memos that are not grammatically perfect. We all are in this health and economic tornado together. When in doubt, lean on your own humanity, candor, and desire to get your message across quickly, honestly, and clearly.
Last but not least, it’s always good to remember that effective communication is two-way, so avoid making your message one-directional. Let them know who they can talk to, whether that is you, their direct leader, HR, or another person who can answer their question or respond to their comment. People appreciate being in conversation, not just being told what is going to happen and what to do.
Remember, in times of crisis, often the most effective message is not just what you say, write, or send, but what you do that shows your humanity, integrity, and that we’re all in this together.
Jason Dorsey is a member of the Next Coast Ventures’ Entrepreneur Council. He is president of The Center for Generational Kinetics, a Gen Z and Millennial research and strategy firm. Dorsey has served on the board of directors of both public and private technology companies and is passionate about helping leaders scale companies.