Are the best leaders in times of crisis necessarily the best leaders in "normal" times?
Recently, a business leader said to me, "It's in these times that we see who the real leaders are." Instinctively, I replied, "That's so true!" but I immediately regretted my response as I then thought to myself: So, how does that square with the notion you promote, that diversity in a team is essential to its success over time?
Because, that's what I truly believe. When I was a leader in the aeronautics industry, my boss would often say to me, "MJ, if all your managers were like Anthony,* you'd have a stellar team!" I didn't say anything at first, but after repeated similar comments, I proceeded to describe to him the strengths and weaknesses of each of my managers, asserting that my role as a leader was to be aware of this overall picture of my team. Not for the purpose of performance evaluations or to compare one against the other, but so I would know whom I needed to delegate what tasks to and when in order to meet our corporate objectives.
Naturally, this overview also served as a starting point for supporting my team members to develop their skills, and for setting targets that would lead them to improve in their roles. But instead of focusing on the negative, I really wanted my managers to be aware of everyone's strong and weak points so that, as a team, we could support each other moving forward.
Taking stock of your team - together
I remember that Anthony excelled at managing complex teams using common sense and an iron fist in a velvet glove. Conversely, Ben needed to adopt a firmer approach in his management style but was outstanding when it came to talks with union delegates to find solutions that answered everyone's needs. As for Stephan, there was no one more competent at handling a crisis: he seemed unstoppable and always had plenty of ideas. That said, I had to keep my eye on things, as his decisions sometimes proved problematic in the medium or long run. Danielle's analytical mind made her adept at planning and foreseeing every eventuality. However, she hated checking in on her employees and could never find the time to do so. Frank, for his part, knew the industry like the back of his hand and was an invaluable source of information. Yet, when it came time to making projections or planning, it was excruciating trying to get him to put anything on paper. He would tell me he had it all in his head and that his time was ill-spent in his office doing paperwork.
"Diversity in a team is essential to its success over time."
One day, I had to gather my team together and tell them, "Look, we're facing some difficult times ahead. There are going to be a lot of layoffs. I don't have your aviation experience, so I'm going to rely on your expertise to guide me. I also have a soft heart, and it pains me to have to let people go. So, Anthony, I'm going to need you to help me determine who our best people are, even if they're difficult to manage. I also want you to be there when I make the announcements to employees. Ben, I need you to help me deliver this news to the union and see how we can obtain their cooperation. Stephan, I need you to identify which projects are the most profitable to deliver in the short term, by department, as well as the qualifications and resources needed. Danielle, reach out to each manager and start planning with them the internal and external resources they will need for the deliverables. Frank, you've already been through a similar situation, so I'm going to need you to guide me and go over my decisions with me to make sure I'm on the right track. I want you to let me know if you've seen something before and what the consequences were, so I can make any necessary adjustments."
These were extremely trying times - probably not unlike what's happening now in many companies caught in the throes of COVID-19. I can say with satisfaction, however, that we were able to leverage the full potential of my team, because we had the courage to be open amongst ourselves about each of our strengths and weaknesses - without fear of repercussions and, on the contrary, knowing that we could count on each other for support, if needed.
To all the CEOs who are currently fighting to keep their organizations afloat, I urge you to consider this approach. And above all, remember that those skilled leaders in "normal" times who seem less on top of their game these days have not suddenly lost their abilities. It may simply mean that this crisis could be an opportunity for your usually overshadowed leaders to show what they're truly made of!
* Please note that the actual names of the people described in this article have been changed to preserve their anonymity.