What does it mean to lead in a crisis?

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.

Meet Amanda Munday: founder of The Workaround, author, and advocate.

Amanda Munday is the founder and CEO of The Workaround, a parent-friendly workspace in Toronto that offers waitlist-free childcare. An expert storyteller, she’s a regular contributor to The Globe and Mail, and the author of the intimate, bestselling memoir Day Nine: A Postpartum Depression Memoir. An advocate for women’s rights, Amanda has been awarded the Toronto Community Foundation Vital People Award for her work with women and technology, and an active voice in the push for universal childcare. 

 

My first job ever was… working concessions at Famous Players Theatre (now Cineplex). After slaying the popcorn upsell I was promoted to “audience warm-up” where before each film I picked up a microphone and asked people to turn off their cell phones and… wait for it… their beepers. Ironically people often tossed popcorn at me.

The idea for The Workaround came to me when... I returned to work at a Toronto tech startup after my second child and felt like an alien. It seemed like I was the only one struggling to work and parent young children with a career I loved. Yet I knew there had to be other parents who needed to work and who struggled to find childcare in Toronto, so I selfishly built a space that would make it easier for me to go to work.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because…  I’m stubborn and government policy moves too slowly. As we’ve seen with the COVID crisis, there is a lot of promise of relief without concrete immediate action. The same is true (tenfold) with childcare policy. I started an innovative childcare company after several frustrating years of childcare inaction.

My proudest accomplishment is… when my daughter proclaimed on one of her virtual school lessons that she is now the CEO of The Workaround and too busy on calls all day to finish her schoolwork. 

My boldest move to date… was leaving my ten year marriage to come out as queer and finding a way to positively co-parent and co-exist with my ex while my children are still so little.

 

“As a strong, A-type, very proud woman I believed I could do it all. Once I accepted help, things improved dramatically.”

 

I surprise people when I tell them… I’m quite introverted and feel great stress in large group settings or after long in-person visits with anyone other than one or two close friends.

My best advice from a mentor was… focus on the problem directly in front of you, not the future problem you’re envisioning.

My advice for aspiring entrepreneurs… is don’t open a brick and mortar space? (Kidding… but not really). My advice to entrepreneurs is to consider if the work you want to be doing truly lights you up — you will be working longer hours than you ever have, putting everything on the line. So make sure it’s for a mission/cause/activity you really believe in. Otherwise it’s a whole lot of stress, and there are easier ways to earn no money.

The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is…you can’t do everything today”. I recognize that currently I’m in the middle of a global pandemic and I cannot do the work I want to do, but I’m still quietly shaming myself for not doing enough. I really struggle to remember what “enough” really means.

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… ask whether that hour includes parenting my children. If it’s a solo extra hour in the day, I would spend it napping or sitting outside in silence. If it’s an extra hour of parenting, I would spend it on screen time.

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… that I’m queer, but truly in love with my garden. If only I lived somewhere I could garden 12 months of the year.

The best thing I’ve done for my business so far… is bring very wise investors and advisors into the mix, revealing my books and financial vulnerability. As a strong, A-type, very proud woman I believed I could do it all. Once I accepted help, things improved dramatically.

I stay inspired by… incredibly intelligent women and non-binary individuals who bravely put their critical analysis into the world through articles, books, podcasts and song. I LOVE critical analysis of everything from the current state of capitalism to an apt dissection of Love is Blind.

The future excites me because… well frankly it feels like we have nowhere to go but up.

My next step is… only to survive the next 18 months. The Workaround, my company, is still ordered closed in this moment — the recovery from this closure period will be much longer than the closure itself, and the only option I have is to try to survive it, hoping we will see enough return to normalcy to continue on.

Managing Our Professional Identity Crisis

Being an entrepreneur is hard at the best of times. In the midst of a global pandemic? As my Italian relatives say… fugedaboudit. The loss of self can be hard to reconcile when the public messaging is to be all-in-this-together. I thought I had my identity finally sorted: A queer, separated parent of two children, author and brick-and-mortar small business owner. I am many things to many people, and I worked hard to get comfortable with who I am. I consider myself well-versed in all things identity. Especially the loss of it. And yet the pandemic has made me feel as though I’m losing the identity I worked so hard to shape.

In what feels like a century ago, The Workaround, the parent-friendly coworking space with childcare was ordered closed on March 17. By March 20, I found myself immersed in homeschooling schedules with eight hours of crafts and activity plans, short-order cooking, emotional caregiving to my children, staff, family and friends, along with the responsibility of planning what to do next with my company. All to be in good order before the end of day yesterday. While some are flourishing in their uninterrupted time with their children, I’m grieving the loss of my professional existence. The one that had me working so hard to build a profitable company, one that employed 90% women and supported entrepreneurs of all genders. I miss being CEO.

Are other parents out there like me, who’ve found themselves sitting on the floor, muted on a work call, surrounded by sprawling lego and upside down yogurt cups thinking, “who am I anymore? How long do I have to pretend I’m holding it together? Who will I be when this is over?”

My question to you, reader, is this: is now the time for professional redefinition?

We are struggling to maintain all our identities. Women, particularly in heterosexual relationships, take on the majority of the household and parenting duties. There isn’t a 50/50 share of work-from-home-and-parent-kids ratio in many households that I know of. Even if we are the leaders of fortune 500 companies (I’m not… yet) we are still the ones expected to lead pandemic caregiving duties. Also worth noting that it is women who have professionally taken the largest brunt of the economic fallout: often women, people of colour and new immigrants own local businesses. We own the restaurants, cake-shops, dry-cleaning, salons and law offices that fill your main street. As the lower-income earners to male counterparts it’s likely women who are considering not going back to work. We’re holding many precarious roles.

 

“The reality is, we can’t easily make strategic decisions, or even minor shifts when we are in an unstable environment. We could perhaps attempt to, but it’s a lot better use of time to take a breather and wait it out.”


In order to regain some sense of self, I’ve found myself grasping to control an uncontrollable environment. The rainbow schedules and endless zoom social hour invitations are examples of our brains looking for normalcy and order. 

What brings me hope is that thriving in unrealistic expectations is one of marginalized business owners’ strongest assets. I don’t believe that working from home with screaming children and late night business meetings is anyone’s ideal picture of a “new normal”. The reality is that nothing about this world is normal and it’s not worth our limited energy to repurpose our sense of self to fit within it. For those who have worked hard to build their identity in a system stacked with barriers, it’s worthwhile to preserve our sense of self during a societal collapse, however temporary the collapse. I’ve spiralled into a thought monster about the new world and how we will manage many times. The reality is, we can’t easily make strategic decisions, or even minor shifts when we are in an unstable environment. We could perhaps attempt to, but it’s a lot better use of time to take a breather and wait it out.

How can we survive our loss of professional identity in a crisis?

First and foremost, don’t try to redefine what is undefinable. There is nothing that brings me more stress in this pandemic crisis than uncertainty. Strategic planning is rendered useless when new government programs, restrictions and infection rates repeatedly change. If we could stop trying to grasp what we can’t hold, we might be in a more restful situation to gear back up when the time is right. 

Find small ways to remember your “why”. For me, one of the main catalysts for starting The Workaround was to support families, particularly families who don’t fit within the stereotypical household norms. What helps me remember that I’m still helping families is the notion that I’m largely leaving them alone. We aren’t building virtual communities or daily check-ins. I know our members don’t have the capacity to participate and the best thing I can do right now is stay out of their way.

Don’t wear the mask of someone you never were. If your old identity did not include weekend watercolor paintings and evening knitting sessions, this temporary crisis world doesn’t have to either. One thing missing from all the “learn a new skills” rhetoric is that the pressure to be a better version of ourselves can pull us further away from the selves we know, adding more shame and guilt about that lack of productivity. If sales forecasts and marketing podcasts were your jam before, find a way to bring them into your day now. You do not need to be a new person in a temporary state.