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What does it mean to lead in a crisis?

Trust is central to everything.

What makes someone an expert in a crisis? Is it years of experience? Lived experiences? Training? Following examples from others? All of the above?

I’m no expert, let me start there. It’s been really difficult building a new company, one that went into a pandemic driven lockdown before we were 18 months old. One that can’t “pivot” to online services. I’m trying to grow, sustain, and just survive all at the same time. And in that, maybe inspire. This past weekend I was on the phone with a good friend of mine who has successfully founded and run a number of startups and he asked me a question that stopped me from pacing in my slippers in my living room. He asked,

“What is your leadership approach right now?”

The answer wasn’t immediately clear to me, so I paused. I responded that I typically work from a place of collaboration. As an entrepreneur who has always struggled with authority, I’m not a fan of top-down leadership. I love a good consensus-building session. My friend clarified his question. “What about trust? Where does trust fall into your leadership approach? Where is trust from and for your team today?”

With the latest lockdown measures in Toronto (started on November 23rd), The Workaround has had to temporarily close our doors. Shared space / meeting rooms and event spaces are ordered closed. Revenue is down between 55-90%. Childcare can be open but not without parents working on-site. Even if I could open, limited capacity is far worse from a business perspective, because it means a trickle of income but the same fixed costs (PPE, cleaning, hydro, rent). Laying off my staff, even temporarily, means reduced income for them in month 10 of a pandemic. No scenario is optimal. There is no easy win. It’s all lose-lose.

I’ve yet to see the playbook for what great business leadership looks like in a global pandemic. As I sat down to write the “we’re closing again” email, anxiety overwhelmed me. Should I fight? Pivot quickly? Find a way to keep revenue growing? All orders of government are advising we don’t meet indoors with people not from our own household, where meeting spaces are closed, where the loudest message is to work from home if at all possible. It doesn’t mean I get to stop working (or take a break!) but simply have to find another way to keep the purpose and vision of The Workaround alive. To support working parenthood. While I am closed because we are following public health guidelines. Even when it doesn’t make business sense. The politicalization of COVID has made it even more difficult for small business owners to make strategic decisions. Taking a position comes at a cost.

“Whether you’re a team lead at a large organization or a small business owner or a freelancer with a range of clients, trust has to be central to how we work.”

Why even bother taking a position? Because as my friend suggested, leading is about more than keeping the lights on. It’s about trust. I can’t think of another example when I’d be arguing the government should close my company down temporarily (with funding!), but this is one of them. Forcing business owners to figure out alternative strategies to stay economically afloat during a public health emergency isn’t fair. My definition of trust includes modelling people over profits (that’s a joke by the way; no profits for brick and mortar during a pandemic), that I truly want my staff team around for the long-haul. I want the business to survive and their jobs to remain there and to know that when tested, I will do what I can to keep them and our members well.

I need them to trust me. 

Whether you’re a team lead at a large organization or a small business owner or a freelancer with a range of clients, trust has to be central to how we work. How we approach times of stress. It also has to be central to reporting to shareholders. If stakeholders can’t trust that we are leading the organization from a place of integrity, we put the company in both reputational and fiduciary risk.

Is this what leadership looks like in a crisis? Perhaps. It’s probably survival more than trust if I’m honest. Vulnerability even. One thing you can do today is to take the time to think about how you can build up, and break trust with your team by the big and small decisions you make. Even when it doesn’t seem like the call you’re making is a demonstration of your leadership, it is. You know this. If you’re not sure how to navigate leadership in a crisis, there are many, many amazing women-led organizations who can help. My advice is simple: curate and honour trust. 

Trust that customers will return, even if they are hesitant today.

Trust that stress shows itself in many ways, and when the crisis ends some of the stress does too.

Trust that taking care of yourself and your family, team, and loved ones so that you can be equipped to run your company and excel at your work is the right call.

Trust that we’ve done these hard things before, and we can do it again.

Trust this will end.

Amanda Munday is Founder and CEO of The Workaround, a parent-friendly workspace in Toronto that offers waitlist-free childcare. You can learn more about Amanda and find more of her writing on her Perspectives page.