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Lessons on Leading through a Pandemic

We’ve been talking with Yale SOM alumni about their professional and personal experiences during COVID-19. Here are a few key ideas that have emerged from these conversations.

Illustrations of various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic
Sean David Williams

By Ben Mattison

The unfolding COVID-19 pandemic isn’t a single crisis; it’s a vast complex of dilemmas, large and small. You can build a fuller picture of the challenges that individuals and organizations are facing, and the opportunities they are identifying, by talking to a wide range of people who are dealing with different aspects of the situation, each in their own way.

We’ve been talking with Yale SOM alumni over the last several weeks, hearing about their professional and personal experiences during COVID-19. Here are a few key ideas that have emerged from these conversations.
 

Be ready to improvise.

COVID-19 swept away the assumptions underlying plans made just a few months ago. Alumni told us stories of shifting on the fly, adapting their organizations to a changed world and to help with those suffering during the pandemic.

Seth Goldman ’95, the co-founder of Honest Tea and chair of Beyond Meat, was opening PLNT Burger, a new chain of plant-based restaurants, as the pandemic struck. Since the chain’s first few restaurants are located within Whole Foods supermarkets, they were able to open—but with takeout only, no samples, and prepackaged condiments. Another food industry entrepreneur, John Wang SOM/YLS ’09, the creator of the Queens Night Market, a multiethnic outdoor food fair, was forced to shutter the market, but repurposed his network of chefs to feed first responders.

Linda Mason ’80, founder of the childcare provider Bright Horizons, told us how the company pivoted to offer care to the children of first responders.

“This is such a fast-arriving and fast-changing crisis that we can only plan so much,” Mason said. “But it has made me incredibly proud to see the organization respond with a spirit of, ‘I’m going to do what I can to help.’”
 

Prioritize empathy.

More than any crisis in memory, COVID-19 is affecting all of us—some are sick or have ailing family members; many more are struggling with childcare or just reeling from unfathomable change.

“The human thing, the kind thing, is to start every conversation with the simple question: ‘How are you?’”

Laszlo Bock ’99, founder and CEO of Humu, which uses behavioral science to help organizations work better, told us that managers should focus on their employees’ emotional well-being.

“People who are scared are not going to be productive or move in any kind of cohesive direction,” Bock said, “The human thing, the kind thing, is to start every conversation with the simple question: ‘How are you? I just want to check in on you.’ Right now, showing empathy is the most important thing you can do for productivity, performance, innovation, retention—for any meaningful outcome.”

One challenge that almost everyone is facing is trying to be productive while working remotely. Even Scott Wharton ’95, who leads Logitech’s video collaboration group, had to cope with his own transition to remote work while scrambling to respond to a huge spike in demand. He says it’s not easy, even at a company that sells videoconferencing equipment and has been partly remote for years. “It is something you have to learn to do. We’ve helped a lot of our clients not just with the technical parts but the cultural pieces. It’s hard to imagine what this might have looked like if it had happened even five or ten years ago.”
 

Look for the helpers.

Amid the suffering and anger, there are countless examples of people pitching in to help. In hard-hit New York City, Wang said, “most of the responses I’ve seen have been about building, strengthening, and even creating bonds. Everyone feels like a victim, but also everyone can do something to help. There’s a lot of mutual support and camaraderie bubbling up.”

Mason said that the crisis is revealing character: “It’s a crucible moment for leaders, in our government as well as in our private and nonprofit sectors. I tend to focus on examples of people rising to this challenge rather than some of the ugly stuff that’s happening. And I’m seeing leaders rise up around the country.”
 

Make peace with uncertainty.

We all want to know we’re going to return to a more recognizable world. The simple fact is that any prediction about when you’ll again think nothing of going to the office and the gym, or of catching a cab for the ride to the airport, is just a guess.

“Because of the uncertainty we’re facing from the lack of therapeutics and when a vaccine will be available, we must plan for waves of infection. We are all trying to figure out how we live in a world with that uncertainty.”

Jeff Schwartz ’87, who leads the Future of Work team at Deloitte, said that recovery from COVID-19 won’t look like other crises. “Because of the uncertainty we’re facing from the lack of therapeutics and when a vaccine will be available, we must plan for waves of infection. We are all trying to figure out how we live in a world with that uncertainty. How do we manage the workforce, recognizing that in the next few months or years, we may be bouncing back and forth between something like normal and having different parts of the global workforce shut down?”

Accepting how much is unknown about where events are headed can unleash creative thinking. Amy Whitaker ’01, the author of Art Thinking, said that art provides a template for navigating the path to an unknown future. “If you are making a work of art you are not just going from a known A to a known B but inventing point B…. Art is a laboratory for looking at the biggest hardest most important questions whether we can answer them or not.”  
 

Think expansively about a transformed future.

The pandemic will end, alumni told us, but the world will never be the same.

Change will affect every industry, and some—like restaurants and hospitality—have seen their business models completely upended. Goldman said that there will be opportunities in remaking restaurants for a post-pandemic world: “We’re seeing a tremendous shakeup of the food service industry. I think it will be a fundamentally different industry when we return to normal. The model of restaurateurs paying the fixed cost of a lease when you have huge variability like we’re seeing now can’t remain. Being able to understand, anticipate, and evolve away from that model is an opportunity.”

When it comes to the workplace, all of us are getting a glimpse at the future world, a little earlier than planned. “I think we will see existing trends accelerate,” Wharton said. “More people working remotely, at least some of the time. There’s no reason for it to be all or nothing. I have engineers who need to be in a lab most of the time. And then there are some people who don’t ever need to be in the office. But for many people, there will be more room for a hybrid.”

Schwartz agreed: “A metaphor that’s come up for what we’re witnessing and experiencing right now is a time machine. With billions of people suddenly trying to work remotely, we’ve jumped forward. This move of work and education to virtual platforms was something we expected to see three, five, or ten years from now. Instead, it’s happening right now even as we are dealing with a crisis.”

 

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