Good leadership guides through troubled times. Poor leadership can destroy a good thing no matter how long it’s been around.
This good-versus-bad assessment usually takes place after the fact; and it may or may not play out as intended. We all want to be good leaders, but some achieve it, while others do not.
The pandemic led me to reevaluate my own leadership decisions and qualities, as my agency — and every other in our industry — wends its way through tough times.
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned.
Lead with balance, responsibility, and generosity
I have always compartmentalized work and home life, using my commute to transition into work mode or shake off pressure on the way home. The pandemic threw that neat categorization out the window — not only for me, but our entire staff.
Working from home all of the time was uncomfortable for us all. Personal and professional were suddenly blurred. My kids are grown and out of the house, but that wasn’t the case for many.
This situation forced me to lead with more compassion. I began to accept that when the personal and professional are not so neatly delineated, results are more important than process and methods. Everyone needs to find that balance. My job is to be more tolerant and generous, and make staffers as comfortable as possible.
Coping with this pandemic has happened in phases. First was the shock and awe; second is a long period of adaptation and learning to be able thrive under the circumstances. The third phase is when we can see a finish line, ushering in relief and optimism.
We’re still in the second phase, and we’re focusing on staffers’ physical space to help them thrive. We’re giving them office equipment to make WFH more comfortable. We’re asking, “How are you doing?” — a personal investment that’s been a deposit in the emotional piggy bank that everyone will remember.
Manage the pressure
This pandemic has increased financial pressure on all of us.
At our agency, sales volume dropped while expenses stayed the same (80% of our costs are people-related). I could have laid off personnel, but chose not to. I believe that as a private company, short-term pressures shouldn’t dedicate our long-term strategy. Wall Street often punishes such thinking, an unfortunate side effect of capitalism.
I believe in a capitalist business model, but not if it only rewards short-term thinking. To paraphrase Barack Obama, capitalism is like a wild horse: you have to let it run, but every now and then, you also need to pull on the reins.
Give back for the long term
I won’t be running this agency forever, so I decided to implement an Employee Stock Ownership Plan. I recall my father benefiting greatly from an ESOP — it allowed my parents to retire comfortably. There are tax benefits, of course, but it feels like a natural next step to invest in our people.
All leaders should be re-examining their own styles this year with an eye toward generosity, understanding and humanity. The world is already hard enough. Benefitting your employees almost always pays off — if not today, then in the future.
Gordon Zellner is CEO at Evergreen Trading Co.