COVID-19 Makes Great HR Leadership More Critical Than Ever

Coronavirus has descended upon us like a planetary wrecking ball laying waste to even the best-laid plans. Now more than ever, CHROs must collaborate with CEOs and COOs to lead their organizations through a once-in-a-generation crisis that will likely impact all of us both professionally and personally. As Winston Churchill famously said, “We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end…We shall never surrender!” And so, as we wage war with an invisible but potent menace, it’s our responsibility as HR leaders to inspire our teams to tackle the daunting challenges ahead.

Reassess strategic planning

All 2020 operating plans have now gone out the window. Revenue will slow, sales cycles will lengthen, supply chains will be impacted, and productivity will decline. Start reassessing your plan for the next six weeks, quarter, and half-year and make plans to reassess again regularly with the knowledge that given the fluidity of the situation, whatever assumptions you bake in now will likely need to shift again over the coming days and weeks. That said, it’s important not to over-correct in ways that can’t be easily fixed. If you anticipate a 50% revenue drop but only experience a 15% drop, you’ll find yourself without key roles filled during the downturn and unable to ramp up quickly during the recovery.

Prioritize and monitor employee engagement

Your team will forever judge your company’s culture and values by its actions during this time of crisis. If you take quick and decisive action, communicate frequently, and lead with empathy, you’ll gain loyalty. If you handle this crisis sloppily, your strongest employees will leave during the downturn, and even more will leave during a recovery. Don’t forget that employees who work from home have significantly more opportunities to interview completely under the radar.

Reinforce a sense of purpose

Your employees are nervous, scared, and distracted. The best way to keep them engaged is to remind them why they work for your company to begin with. Remind people of your strategic plan and mission and tie both to the current environment. Bonus points if you can support local organizations struggling from the pandemic or otherwise help employees believe that your work is somehow contributing to an eventual recovery. 

Humanize corporate leadership; we’re all in this together

Today, we’re all working from home while juggling roommates or unexpectedly homeschooled kids, food and supply shortages, and a host of worries about ourselves and our loved ones. Post photos on social media of the CEO working from home alongside his kid. Invite everyone to send in photos of them working in their new makeshift home offices or to send in stories about how they are supporting health care institutions, local schools, non-profits or small businesses in this time of need.

Communicate in overdrive

If the CEO normally sends out emails once a month, she should do it once a day. If you have a weekly scrum, hold them daily. Leverage tools like Google Hangouts, Slack, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams to keep collaboration alive and well. Video chats are especially important during this time because they forge a stronger human connection. And leverage humor wherever possible–we can all use it right now.

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Exercise flexibility

Not everyone is going to be able to work 8:30-6 anymore. Sometimes people will have to take breaks to feed or help their kids or elderly parents. Their kids may even “join” some of your meetings. This is not business as usual, and we shouldn’t expect it to be. Leaders at every level and in both team and one-on-one meetings should emphasize their embrace of flexibility during this time.

Set an example of generosity

We’re all going to have to make sacrifices during this time. Executives at United and Southwest Airlines are taking voluntary pay cuts. It would be unseemly for them not to do so given the layoffs that have already begun. If sacrifices must be made at your company, consider starting at the top. At my company, when times have been tough, we’ve implemented a “trickle-up” bonus structure in which the people who make the least get their bonuses paid first. And don’t forget support teams like janitors and IT contractors. Pay everyone you can as long as you can, and as well as you can.

In these uncertain times, we’re more than “just” HR leaders. We’re also the Empathizer-in-Chief, Lead Engagement Officer, and Work-at-Home Enabler. Employees are relying on us to come across as calm, knowledgeable, and sensitive, while our executive partners are relying on us to help them drive the business forward during an uncertain time. We as HR leaders have never faced a greater challenge — nor been more up to the task.

Valerie Frederickson is the founder and CEO of HR consulting and executive search firm Frederickson Partners, the country’s leading People executive search firm for almost 25 years. Frederickson actively develops and nourishes meaningful, long-term relationships with over 20,000 rising and established people operations and HR executives worldwide. Clients include Alphabet, Facebook, Gartner, Gilead, Intel, Palantir, Pinterest, ServiceNow, Roche, Twitter, Uber, Workday and other technology, media, biotech, and fintech startups and established firms. www.fredericksonpartners.com

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