The Sharpening Stone – Leading in the Face of COVID-19

Today we have a special audio edition of Sharpening Stone in light of the rapidly unfolding COVID-19 coronavirus situation.  I’m Rob Skacel, business psychologist with True Edge Performance Solutions.

Wow, it seems everything’s changed over the past few days – schools and colleges shutting down, professional sports suspending their seasons, travel restrictions, event cancelations, you name it.  We’ve hit a tipping point as this has shifted from epidemic to pandemic, and every single one of us is feeling the impact.

Today’s message is specifically for senior leaders. I want to briefly cover some important principles for leading through crises, and then offer a framework for engaging your key people and navigating your organization through these troubled waters.

First, if you are THE leader, the face of your organization, you must be visible.  This is not the time to delegate communication to others.  Get in front of your people (and perhaps also your customers) early and often, whether that is live, by video, or in writing.  You must show courage, composure, decisiveness, agility, and a willingness to act quickly.  You cannot afford to appear passive, paralyzed, panicked or overwhelmed, regardless of what you feel.

Don’t go overly optimistic either.  People see through that.  Be realistic, transparent, and forthcoming as new developments unfold and try to stay a step ahead by conducting scenario planning … playing out the implications of various “what if” scenarios.

Be generous. The old expression that friendships are forged in fire comes into play here too. Your employees are certainly scared, worried about their jobs, and have a thousand other concerns on their minds. Now is the time to go beyond normal policies and assure your employees that they will be OK, and you and your team will stand with them.

This virus is a big deal.  If you haven’t yet done so, you need to get moving. Don’t play the hero and try to do it all yourself – You’ll need as much brainpower as you can muster. Pull together your key leaders, if only by phone, for some brainstorming and problem-solving.  Here are some of the things you should be covering in those sessions.  You will want to generate significant discussion on each of these topics:

How might this impact our business?  That question will generate several others, like: How has this impacted us already? What’s the potential impact on our supply chain, customers, related markets, our people’s ability to show up for work and do their jobs? – You get the picture, apply that question both deep and wide.  For example, maybe you are a small subcontractor who has 40% of your workforce committed for the next 8 weeks doing renovations at a retirement community.  You might get a call tomorrow from the GC telling you that the client does not want your workers on site until the crisis has passed.  Ouch!  So, apply this question ‘’ How might this impact our business?” — to various case scenarios that range in terms of both duration and severity of the pandemic.

The next topic: What can we do about it?  So, with each of the scenarios you develop, you should be generating ideas and plans for how you may need to adapt. Focus your actions on what you can reasonably control or influence.  Focus your prayers on what you cannot.  Consider how your core values might guide your response. I realize asking “What can we do about it” is an obvious next step, but here’s how most will mishandle it. They will focus almost exclusively on how to hunker down and prevent loss.

You absolutely have to do that, but I’m going to push you to also consider silver linings.  I know you’re thinking, “Silver linings??   I don’t sell hand sanitizer, toilet paper, or facemasks, so there are no silver linings in my world!”  I get it.  Nonetheless, you and your team should be asking the question: What assets, products, or capabilities do we possess that we might rapidly adapt or develop to yield something beneficial?  Your brainstorming around this issue may lead you to revenue generators that can offset your losses or perhaps to ways that you can simply meet the needs, charitably, of other people or organizations who are taking a beating from this pandemic. For example, you may recall that during hurricanes Florence and Harvey, breweries canned water and sent it to affected areas. Focusing on your usefulness to others produces nice side effects to your reputation or brand, and sometimes also to your bottom line.

So again, at minimum, you should be asking: How might this impact our business? What can we do about it?  What assets, products, or capabilities do we possess that we might rapidly adapt or develop to yield something beneficial?

You may have to revisit these questions multiple times in the coming weeks.  Stay after it as the situation evolves.

If you want a sounding board for your plans, or more direct guidance in leading your team through these discussions, we’re happy to help as we are able.  You can contact us through our website,, or by phone at 717.509.9177.

Either way, I hope this message is helpful to you, and I encourage you, in good times and bad, to step up and lead.

About the Author: Rob Skacel, Ph.D.

Rob is a licensed psychologist with senior executive experience. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from Franklin & Marshall College, and Master’s and Doctoral degrees from Purdue University. Rob began his career in the field of clinical psychology, splitting his time between patient care and management responsibilities. Within a few years, he began the transition to business psychology specialization. He has since held senior leadership positions in sizeable for-profit and non-profit organizations, where his responsibilities focused on performance improvement and organizational development.

Rob founded True Edge Performance Solutions in 2000, and maintained it as a part-time venture for a number of years as he continued to accrue executive experience. By 2006, True Edge had grown to the point where it required Rob’s full-time attention. Over the years, Rob has provided services to dozens of leaders and their organizations, in a variety of industry sectors such as manufacturing, professional services, health care, agribusiness, construction, education, non-profit, and trade associations.

The Sharpening Stone

The Sharpening Stone is a series of short videos from True Edge designed to sharpen leaders and their organizations.

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