How to lead during times of uncertaintyFeatured
2020 has been nothing like usual. Many leaders are forced to face challenges of uncertainty in their business, make hard decisions, and face health challenges and dramatic changes to the way we live. Effective leadership, to me, is about making hard decisions when everything is not ideal.A true leader can act and provide certainty in times of chaos. When everything is rosy, leaders are not needed. Everything can work without them.I always believed that my teams do not need me when everything is working per plan.They need me in times of challenges to help navigate a ship that is sinking. If the ship is sailing smoothly, the team can handle everything by himself.In this article series, I will discuss aspects of effective leadership I feel are a must, especially during this time of uncertainty. When I started my career in tech, I was a software engineer.As a software engineer, the challenges I had were to learn new things, get myself up to date with technology, and know-how to solve problems most elegantly and straightforwardly.As I grew in my career to more senior roles as a technical leader than as a manager and director, I had to do more than execute.Execution comes naturally to most engineers, and to me, I know. But what about vision and strategy? That did not come so quickly.An effective leader is expected to define a vision for their team or organization and have a strategy. Leadership is not just about execution. It is about defining the course of action, where the ship is going, not only how to sail the ship. Great leaders have a vision for their company, organization, or team. Without a vision, the team will execute but not necessarily yield the right results.To get to the right destination, you need to know where you are headed.It is challenging during times like this when a lot is unknown. Business sectors that were used to thrive, like travel, restaurants, transportation, etc., were now challenged to find new ways to make money.How do you define a vision when there is uncertainty in the market and unsure what the next day brings?If we look back a year ago, where people traveled freely and engaged physically, the world was much different than it is today. For example, let’s look at Airbnb, the company that based its business on hosting guests in your own home.When our lives changed a year ago, and we were forced to stay in lockdowns, social interactions changed from physical to virtual. Companies started adopting remote work, as there was no other way of continuing doing business.Airbnb could have shut down its business, saying we wait until the storm settles and continue with our hosting business when people can meet again. Instead, they adopted the change and created a new business line, called virtual experiences, allowing people to sell experiences virtually, such as meditating with sheep, baking, and learning magic tricks. Having a vision in times of uncertainty is difficult, as you do not know what tomorrow brings. You only know today and perhaps a few months ahead. How do you define a vision for your team, organization, company, or yourself in a chaotic environment with uncertainty? Here are some tips from my own experience:Make assumptions - if things are unknown, you assume based on what you know today and what is reasonable.Take Airbnb example, they assumed people would not travel as they used to, and it will probably take a while (from few months to more than a year until life start getting back to where it used to be). That assumption forced Airbnb to think about what they can offer that still allows people to engage but virtually. Expect the worse, plan for the best - You always need to assume the worst can happen but plan with a best-case scenario in mind.What do I mean by that?When I was leading engineering teams, it was unclear where the company is headed, how many new clients we get, how much funds we will have, we will hire, etc.So I planned the vision based on what I was hoping to happen (best case scenario), made hiring plans, and prepared the features and work I was hoping we could achieve during the year.But I always had in mind what I do if things do not go as planned. There was always the realization that things might not happen as I wish. Therefore, I had a plan for the worst-case scenario as well. I know what I had to do if things do not go as well as I was hoping. Prioritize as if your life depends on it -Always have a prioritized list of the things you are planning to do. Prioritization helps with making quick decisions and deciding what has to drop. I was always frustrated when seeing leaders unable to decide what initiatives the company need to cut.When everything is a high priority, it is impossible to make decisions, and you try to do everything, but nothing is done properly. Prioritizing frequently is a must to make hard decisions.And during times of uncertainty, expect that priorities will change, it is ok, as what you know today may change tomorrow, and you will have to change your priorities accordingly. How do you share your vision with your team and be transparent about the agility and feasibility of your vision? I am a great believer in transparency, and I always prefer to be open about the decisions made and why.When planning to share your vision with your team, think about those things:What is crucial for them to understand?What information you think should be shared vs. what information you cannot share due to confidentiality?I recommend sharing the assumptions you made, your sunny day scenario, and your worst-case scenario. Be transparent about the fragility of the information and that things can change. Teams will likely have questions, and you should be prepared with answers. It is better to open up and directly share the challenges and compromises rather than hide them.Make sure to emphasize what you do know and what can be assumed to happen at least for the foreseeable month. If you cannot plan for more than a month, make a tentative plan and share what will happen in the coming month with more details and certainty. When people have an idea of what is going on and what they can expect, at least in the short term, they will make an effort to execute the plan. Your team must understand why you made those assumptions, why you made your decisions, and why they are asked to do what you ask them. When your team understands the why they may not necessarily agree, but at least understand your motivations. Leaders that tell people what to do without explanation have a hard time getting people behind them. How do you rally people behind your vision?The best way to get people behind you is to ask for their opinions, listen, and be open to feedback. When your team feels part of the decision-making, they will be more likely to compromise, even if it is a subset. At one of my previous jobs, the leadership team tended to keep things in secret. It was unclear to the employees what is going on? What is discussed? What is coming? That created a lot of frustrations, mistrust in the exec team, and attrition as well.So if you face challenges and you are unclear of what tomorrow holds, be transparent about it.Share your decision-making process, your challenges, and your unknowns.Sharing your weakness is your strength! Strong leaders do not hesitate to show weakness. Share what you know (and can share) and what you do not know.When you open up, listen up and seek people’s opinions, they feel engaged and part of the company. Some may not like it and leave, but some may stick around because they trust you; they trust that your leadership will bring your team and the company to a better place. Always have Plan A and Plan B - that plan may be irrelevant in a few weeks or months, but still, you should have one based on what you know today. Not having any plan is showing weakness, that you do not know what you are doing. Strong leaders always have a plan, even if it is subject to change. Showing that you know what you know and that you know things can change, and have a contingency plan shows that you are a strong leader who can navigate the ship when the winds change. Now that you have a vision, what's next?How do you go about implementation?One of the challenges is working in a constantly changing environment, which forces you to make hard decisions.In the next article, I will share how to make hard decisions.