What 2020 Taught Us About Being an Effective Leader
Being in a leadership position right now is difficult to say the least. We’re tasked with helping our teams stay focused and effective during an unprecedented time of upheaval, disease, natural disaster, fear and more. And not only are we leading teams, we’re also dealing with the realities of 2020 ourselves — we've got kids at home too, we’re getting sick, we’re volunteering for the election and we’re doing anything else that lands on our plate.
With all of that, it may seem impossible to get work done in 2020 (or 2021 as we inch closer …). And it’s true that we can’t lead our teams in the same way or with the same expectations as we did in 2019. But, 2020 has also taught us a lot about how to get work done, even with the world falling apart around us.
And that means we can leverage what we’ve learned during 2020 to improve the resilience and effectiveness of our teams, making 2021 a year where we get things done differently, and maybe even better than we have before. (And if that seems impossible, just consider the remarkable learnings and achievements from teams in healthcare and the military — both consistently high-stress environments.) We’re not alone as we make this journey. Below are a few of the tips and tactics that our team and the teams we work with at Range have deployed.
1. Accept Reality
The first step starts with you. I’ve spoken to leader after leader this year who is frustrated with the pace of their team, asking for advice about how to get everyone back to normal.
The best advice is that normal just isn’t possible right now. And your worth as a leader hinges on your ability to accept the new reality and operate within it, not fight against it. In an emergency, when a leader loses their cool and panics, the rest of the team suffers. There’s no one to direct attention or make decisions.
Don’t be that leader.
Instead, take a moment to write down the realities of what’s going on for your team. Make a list of each teammate and what they’re dealing with: who is caring for children right now, who is dealing with mental health issues, whose spouse is out of work, who has roommates all working from home, etc. Reflect on how these different issues are impacting each person — e.g., is it making a high performer spiky? Or is it making a low performer unable to perform at all? Review how sub-teams and teams are impacted, and make changes accordingly. For example, you may want to avoid pairing two people on a project who are both struggling. Make sure no one is a single point of failure on a project or workstream.
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2. Focus on What You Know
Medical and military professionals train for years. They often perform certain tasks so many times they lose count. As a result, when the pressure is high, those tasks are deeply ingrained in their brains, whether it’s inserting an IV or doing CPR. They can do those tasks without thought, even when the world is falling apart around them.
How can you apply that learning to your team? Empower each teammate to focus on what they’re good at.
As leaders, we often think about how we can help our team to grow, to take on more or different responsibilities from their norm. In 2020 and 2021, the opposite advice holds. As your team plans their next project or next sprint, encourage each person to work on the task that is already in their wheelhouse. By doing so, you help each person to lower the cognitive burden of the work because they already know how to do it.
You can even take it to the next level by encouraging the team to choose workstreams that are fun for them. If they’ve got two projects in front of them, and one feels exciting, encourage them to choose that one. With all the other distractions of this time if a teammate is doing something new or that feels like a drag, it’s going to take longer, slowing down the team and the work.
One caveat: some teammates are comfortable pushing their growth edges right now, and that’s OK too. Just create structure for them to opt out in the future if they need to do so.
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3. Set Milestones to Drive Focus
Is it Thursday or Friday or Tuesday? Who even knows, it’s Blursday. 2020 has redefined time for many of us, making it feel like nothing changes day-to-day. At work, that monotony is a recipe for burnout, boredom and lack of progress.
Historically, leaders have driven alignment using OKRs or launch moments, organizing the team around a shared purpose and timeline. The same tactic works now, but you may want to lean on more frequent cadences like every six weeks or even once a month.
Consider freeing yourself from the need for the timeline to have a strict purpose or to be an organized launch. Having a monthly moment, where several projects wrap up around the same time can be galvanizing if you all agree to it.
The benefits of these milestones are they make prioritization clear. When it’s obvious what’s most important and what’s required for the milestone, it’s easier for the team to choose their work each day and plan their weeks. Clear priorities help limit work in progress as well, encouraging the team to put other work on the back burner instead of slowing everything down. That helps limit the context that each teammate needs to have on different projects, making the work for the milestone easier to get done and get done faster.
Plus, having a milestone creates an excuse to celebrate and reflect on what the team achieved. This reflection helps folks feel a sense of accomplishment and progress even when it feels like 2020 won’t end.
While making these changes will help your team function more effectively, don't forget your team may need more help with their mental health or caregiving right now. You can and should partner with your HR team to ensure your team gets the support they need. Check in with your teammates often to monitor for burnout and identify ways you can help. And if you’re the one feeling burned out, make sure to raise a flag and get the support you need.
2020 and now 2021 are difficult times, but we don’t have to lose whole years. Instead, we can learn about how to work effectively, and take those learnings into the future with us.
About the Author
Jen Dennard is the COO and co-founder of Range, the team success software used by Twitter, New Relic, CircleCI, and more to keep their teams in sync and connected (even during covid).
Prior to Range, Jen led the organization design team at Medium, deploying custom software and training to help scale the company.