Being a good leader is tough in the best of times. With Covid-19 being a leader is terrifying. Back in the good old days, 2 weeks ago, business was booming and our prospects for the coming busy season were bright. Our team was fully engaged and all on the same page preparing for the seasonal onslaught of vaccines, dentistry and preparing horses for the horse show season. I’m sure all of you had similar scenarios in your practice, regardless of the species your practice services. And then within a couple of days we are faced with social distancing, local state of emergencies, and a huge drop in sales. What the heck just happened? Now we are living in a constant state of uncertainty, fear with no idea how long this will all last and on the precipice of business ruin. Who wants to be a leader now?
I’ve defined my leadership style as someone who develops a shared vision for what I want our business to look like and then work with our employees to have them believe in what we are trying to do. Part of the pursuit of the shared vision is developing them to raise their performance beyond what they thought it could be. In short, I want to make people better in the pursuit of a shared goal. It’s a lofty ambition and so much easier to do when things are going well. Now, we are working to survive so how has being a leader changed?
First of all, it has been tough to put on a cheery face and look for the positives when the world seems to be crumbling around you. On top of that my wife and I have been in self isolation after coming back from a truncated vacation, so all of our communication with staff has been through email or conference calls. But, as a leader everyone is looking to you for a path forward and that is what we have to do. That is what we must do if we own a business, or in a leadership position. Here is what I have been doing to lead my team through the Covid-19 crisis.
Develop a plan
Uncertainty if left unchecked begins a horrible negative feedback loop, so the first thing I did was look at various scenarios of what would happen to our business if our sales dropped 10, 20, 30, 40% or more. What would I need to do to keep the business afloat in these various scenarios? Once I realized that we could survive a 50% drop in sales with changes to staffing levels and other expenses I had a framework that I could use for planning. Having a plan with real data for some reason lifted a huge load off of my shoulders. Now I could go to my staff and say this is what we are up against, and what we are doing to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus on our business.
Transparent, honest and continuous communication
This is easier than it sounds. I soon realized that all of our vets and staff are expecting that the worse can happen, they see the news, they know what is going on. There is no need to sugar coat anything. We have a great culture so one of my first stated goals I shared with everyone is that I want to keep our team together. I asked if instead of us having to lay people off would everyone commit to sharing the workload. If we have 5 technicians, but only need 4 at this time, instead of laying one off would all 5 work 20% less. Everyone was on board. Our main message then in every communication was to work towards maximum employment at maximum hours together. Everyone then knew what we were trying to do and that regardless of what happened we are working together to get through this. They also know that the situation is very fluid and that is our best laid plans might disappear suddenly. They knew if things go bad that we would really have to cut hours and even some roles in the short term.
Every day we send out a communication of where we are and what may be looming. I told everyone that if we had to resort to layoffs that we would give them 48 hours notice. Fortunately, our government has introduced wage subsidy programs so the worry about layoffs has disappeared for the time being.
Another part of our communication strategy has been to involve key people in the decisions that affect them. Making them part of the solution fosters teamwork and trust since we are giving them the unvarnished truth about the situation with the hope that they will help us do what is right for each other.
Limit social media and news surfing
I have to admit one-night last week I ended up in a dark place as I contemplated our situation. That isn’t like me, as I’m a very glass is half full kind of person. It didn’t take me long to realize that the constant onslaught of grim news I was reading was not healthy, nor were all the doom and gloom “experts” on my social media feeds. Right away, I turned it off and started reading a book. Reading quiets me and allows me to escape for a while. I still read the news and catch up on friends on social media, but I limit my time on it. I need to be informed to help make decisions, but I don’t need to go down dark rabbit holes exploring apocalyptic scenarios.
Appreciate the time at home
This sounds crazy but a day or so after my wife and I started our self-isolation we found ourselves really slowing down and having a great time together in spite of the chaos outside our doors. We developed a daily routine that involved lots of exercise, reading and cooking dinners we would never have had time to do when we are working. We founded our practice together, and today is her first day back at work looking at her patients and I miss having her at home. It’s amazing how little things become very important very quickly.
Nobody knows how bad this will be or how long it will last. So much of it is beyond our control, so what I have learned is to focus on what you can influence. Make a plan for your business, communicate the plan and how it is progressing openly and consistently with your staff, and take care of yourself so you can be the leader that you want to be.
This will end and when it is over the steps you take now will influence where you will be when we emerge back to a normal life. Being a strong leader now will position your practice to be even better when it’s over.