Leadership in times of crisis

Mary L. Hastler

Mary L. Hastler, CEO of Harford County Public Library, said the COVID-19 pandemic has been unlike any other worldwide crisis. (The Daily Record file photo)

Leadership during a time of crisis is critical. But it’s also something that is hard to prepare for.

No one could have predicted the coronavirus that has become a global pandemic and forced businesses to adjust how they operate. Social distancing, limits on the number of people who could gather together, along with other government guidelines and recommendations forced many businesses to close or staff to work remotely.

“A strong leader in times of crisis demonstrates awareness and flexibility while appropriately assessing the situation and taking action,” Mary Hastler, CEO of the Harford County Public Library, said via email. “The COVID-19 pandemic has been unlike any other worldwide crisis in memory and has challenged even the most exemplary leaders. The typical tools we use to make good decisions have been missing. Quality information and data has been nonexistent and/or inconsistent. A good leader shifts through the information and makes decisions based on the best of their ability.”

For those leaders who have been able to shift their staff to working remotely, it’s taken a change in approach for their leadership styles.

Pat McHugh Lambert, a principal at PK Law, said she typically likes to walk about while meeting with people she leads in the office. Now that everyone is working remotely she can’t do that.

“Right now you have to talk to people where they are,” she said. “One thing I’m trying instead of responding to an email or text, I’m calling or using Facetime. You need to allow people to talk.”

She said another key is understanding where people are coming from. Some may be married and working from home along with their spouse and with children now out of school. Others are single or don’t have children.

Executive Vice President, Marketing and Government Affairs for CareFirst BlueCross Blue Shield Maria Harris Tildon agreed with the need to be agile and to understand the differences between team members.

“(Leadership requires) an ability to be agile in constantly assessing priorities and effectively communicating those priorities to your team,” she said via email. “It also requires a great deal of empathy and understanding of the varied and unique circumstances that each member of the team is navigating through as they adjust to this new way of doing business and working as a team.”

Communication is key
One thing that hasn’t changed is that communication has become even more critical during a crisis — especially one like the COVID-19 pandemic that we are currently experiencing.

Lynne Brick

Lynne Brick, said this is also an opportunity to look ahead and refocus your business and staff. (Submitted photo)

Lynne Brick, co-founder of Brick Bodies in 1985, said that in times like this leadership is really about the three Cs — Connecting, Collaborating and Creating. She said they’ve been trying to stay connected with their clients and staff as much as possible. They’ve kept their full-time staff on during this time so that they can communicate with members as much as possible so that personal connection remains intact.

The company is also a Planet Fitness franchise manager for many regions around the country, managing around 70 different locations. They engage their staff every day with a Zoom conference call each afternoon. She said that face-to-face connection is critical.
She said there are about 200 people on the call each day. They extend their hands toward the camera and do a cheer. Brick said it’s been uplifting to see that each day.

For Dr. Mary Teddy Wray, CEO/Owner of Laurel Bush Family Dentistry, communication is even more key. She had to lay off her staff when the office was forced to close during the COVID-19 crisis.

“I’m sending out text messages to see if they need anything,” Wray said. “I try and send a few jokes every now and then.”

In some ways, many feel communication is better now since it has become even more critical. Lambert said she’s hearing from people more than she expected.

“Effective communication is critical during a crisis and a good leader selects the best formats and frequency for conveying information for their teams,” Hastler said. “A good leader also takes the time to really listen to others and stay engaged with the feedback they are receiving.”

Tildon said her team has a daily huddle so it can set and adjust priorities for the day as well as discuss longer-term issues. Her broader team has an all-hands meeting at the end of the week for updates on key issues as well as a question-and-answer opportunity.

“We also use this time to celebrate successes both personal and professional so that we can end the week on a high note,” she said. “This has been important as while (being) remote it has ensured that we stay connected in a meaningful way.”

Taking time to look ahead
Wray and the others are using this time to turn their attention to what lies ahead once they are able to reopen their businesses and offices. This pause allows everyone, the leaders and employees, to take time, regroup and figure out how to move forward.

“A thought leader doesn’t always work in the business, they work on the business,” Brick said. “This is a time to pause, look out the window and see the world of opportunity. Think of ways to get better.”

That’s where leadership truly shines, looking at the opportunity being presented and finding ways to move forward. And not just for the business, but for the staff too, even if they’ve been directly affected by the crisis.

I’m encouraging people to think about their next steps and not be standing in place,” Lambert said of people she mentors. “I want people to commit to something. What are you doing to move forward?”

Brick said they have directed their staff to develop a personal development plan during the shutdown. Employees are to develop a SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relative, Trackable) goal for this time.

Some are also taking the time to look at their business and plan the next steps. Many have collaborated — one of Brick’s Cs — with organizations or others connected to their specific type of business. That’s helped them possibly see what changes may have to be made as they look to reopen.

“Dentistry will never be the same,” Wray said. “The protocol will change.”

She’s been spending time trying to find N95 masks, visors and other personal protective equipment (PPE). But given the increased need for those across health care, it has been a challenge.

For Hastler it’s given her time to look ahead.

“My focus has been on planning for the new future and developing a new service model delivery for our public libraries,” she said. “We know that things will be very different and we are working as a team to identify our core assumptions, revisit our existing strategic plan, and create a new strategic direction for the new future.”

Despite the virtual communication being used now, Brick said she knows once things are able to return, people are going to be eager to get out and be social.

“People are generally social,” she said. “When we get the green light … people are going to need social and human interaction.”

Women Who Lead This article is featured in The Daily Record’s Women Who Lead: A Woman’s Guide To Business. The mission of the Women Who Lead (formerly Path to Excellence) magazine is to give our readers the opportunity to meet successful women of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs and learn how they define success. Read more from Women Who Lead.